AP – There’s a kitchen-sink full of Serious Drama Cliches in the new Justin Timberlake film Palmer, about a high school football star turned convict who must help the young boy with the addict mom next door while also trying to regain his footing in his small Louisiana hometown. It’d be an insult to real Oscar-bait to even call this Oscar-bait. And yet, compelling performances make Palmer watchable and fairly affecting despite the fact that we’ve seen this kind of thing so many times before.
Timberlake plays Eddie Palmer, who has just been released from prison after 12 years and is going to live with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) in his old hometown. He’s got the ex-con beard and hoodie and thousand-yard squint and is a bit of a mystery, although that might be giving him a little too much credit. The script takes its time teasing out what exactly landed him behind bars.
But he’s essentially keeping his head down and trying to re-enter society when he gets an added complication: The heroin addict living in the trailer next door (played by Juno Temple, who somewhere along the way started getting typecast in ‘white trash’ roles) takes off with her abusive boyfriend and leaves her seven-year-old son Sam (Ryder Allen) without any care.
Sam is used to the unconventional routine and packs up to stay with Vivian, who is happy to care for him for however long his mom stays away. But Vivian is not long for this movie and pretty soon it’s just Palmer who is left and he isn’t exactly looking to be a surrogate parent to anyone. Sam is also a bit of a target in this small Southern town. He likes tea parties and animated fairy princess shows and gets picked on by the boys at school for it.
Palmer’s transition from subtle intolerance to full acceptance of Sam is very quick, which is a little convenient for the story and doesn’t do anything to reveal who Palmer is, was or is becoming. Allen and Timberlake are pretty darn cute together, which goes a long way. There’s also a romance side plot between Palmer and Sam’s teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright).
Palmer is directed straightforwardly by Fisher Stevens, who in addition to his acting career has had successes directing documentaries over the years. It’s hard to say why something like this, invented whole cloth and out of a bundle of familiar tropes, is more effective than something like Hillbilly Elegy, which was an actual true story, but here we are. And even so, you never forget that you’re watching a movie.
Still it’s nice to be reminded that Timberlake has some acting chops, although it’s a far cry from his Social Network breakthrough.