Director: Fisher Stevens
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, Juno Temple, June Squibb
We have seen several emotionally enriching father-son films, and how this relationship has zig-zagged into something stable and sustaining. Palmer, just out on Apple TV+, is not really about a dad and his child, but about a man, who gets fond of a child placed under his care by an unwelcome circumstance.
Directed by Fisher Stevens and scripted by Cheryl Guerriero, the movie traces the life of an unlikely hero, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake), who has served 12 years in prison for felony and is out on parole. Impeccable behaviour behind bars has earned him this reprieve, and he lands at his grandmother’s palatial house in small-town Louisiana. A former football champion, his career ended after college when bad choices and a weakness for pain killers led him to crime. And one night, something goes terribly wrong, and he finds himself in prison.
But the plot is not quite about Palmer’s life in jail; it begins when he comes to his grandmother Vivian’s (June Squibb) home. With his mother having run away and a father who died early, it was Vivian who looked after boy Palmer, and he is very grateful for that. She is a disciplinarian, and tells him that as long as he lives with her, he must follow her rules, one of which is compulsorily attending church every Sunday morning.
With her grandson now all grown up and a man in his own right, the old lady’s maternal instincts turn towards Sam (Ryder Allen), the small son of drug-addicted Shelly (Juno Temple), who lives in a trailer on the lawns of Vivian’s house. “I would have never let her live here had it not been for Sam”, the grandmother tells Palmer, and she dotes on the kid, school-going and a little different from others. He likes to play with dolls and dress up like a fairy for a fancy ball at school.
However, things take a dramatic turn when Shelly disappears leaving Sam behind, and when Vivian dies in her sleep, Palmer finds himself saddled with a responsibility he is just not up to. When Sam’s attractive divorced teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), convinces that Palmer can indeed take care of the child, he somehow comes around.
As much Stevens develops the gentle romance between Maggie and Palmer, the director – and most importantly – explores how the former football champ begins to love Sam. There comes a point when the two become inseparable, and this change is scripted in a way that the 111-minute work gets immensely satisfying.
Palmer gradually gets to understand Sam’s behaviour. “You know you are a boy”, he tells him. “Yes, I am a boy, but I like dolls”, quips the child. At first a little annoyed with this, Palmer gets protective of Sam, warding of school bullies and in one instance, a couple of adult men. Timberlake displays a lovely range of emotions – from frustration and anger to caring and love. He is remarkable, and admirably carries a film which does not, though, come with a very novel kind of theme. Allen is simply cute, his curious eyes behind those hideous glasses are so endearing. There is able support from Wainwright, who as Maggie inches into the relationship with Palmer, and forges an enduring bond with Sam as well.
It is a feel-good movie, stated with haunting simplicity. There is very little drama, except when Shelly throws a tantrum demanding that she be given the right to be with Sam.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic and author of a biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan)