Movie review: ‘Palmer’ is a small, heartfelt character study that could be sturdier

Ed Symkus More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
Eddie (Justin Timberlake) and Sam (Ryder Allen) talk about life. [Apply TV+]

If the kind of movie that you enjoy watching is one that presents a few characters, tosses them together to tell a story, and gets you emotionally involved, then “Palmer” could be for you. But if those characters aren’t developed enough to understand their motivations, if the gears that turn the story aren’t explained until too late in the film, and if that emotional involvement falls short of you being comfortable with your feelings about the characters and the story, then you might have some problems with “Palmer.”

It’s certainly a likable film, filled with actors turning in strong performances, and a few of them achieving the rare treat of screen chemistry. Justin Timberlake holds his own as the title character, Eddie Palmer, fresh out of jail on an early release after serving 12 years for a crime that’s not immediately revealed. He’s on his way home to the little town in Louisiana where he was raised by his grandma Vivian (June Squibb), and where all the boys play football and everyone goes to church.

Staying with Vivian “for now,” his goal - the one assigned him by his parole officer - is to find a job and get on with his life. Because he’s an ex-con, it takes a while for the job part, but he lands a custodian gig at the local elementary school.

The getting on with his life part is going to be more complicated, mainly because of the folks living in the trailer next to Vivian’s house: a strung-out screeching woman named Shelly (Juno Temple); her young son Sam (Ryder Allen), who plays with dols, watches TV cartoons about princesses, and wears a little blue hair clip; and a shady, always angry guy named Jerry (Dean Winters, who plays “Mayhem” in the Allstate TV ads).

If you’re guessing that Palmer is going to get sexually involved with Shelly, you’re right. But it’s only momentary, is completely unnecessary, and keeps the film from being totally family friendly. Another good guess is that he’ll get involved with Sam, in a kind of mentor relationship that benefits both of them. That’s exactly where this film goes, albeit in a very circuitous manner.

Here’s a quick chronology of plot points. Shelly and Jerry take off ... again, leaving Sam behind. Sam moves in with kindly Vivian and lost soul Eddie. Vivian dies in her sleep, about 20 minutes in. The question is presented: What is Eddie to do with Sam in order to keep him out of Child Services?

He’s a good kid, getting by in his own little world, putting up with the abuse he gets from other kids at school when they pick up on his quirks. He just needs direction. Eddie is a quiet, polite man, with a slow burn of a temper who’s never gotten over a string of bad deals that life dealt him (hinted at but not revealed till very late in the film), who also needs direction.

But the film is far from moody and gloomy. Eddie meets Sam’s divorced teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), and it looks like there might be some happiness for both of them. But before that gets going, Eddie and Sam start to open up to each other.

These are the two cases where that chemistry shows up front and center. Every scene between Timberlake and Allen, whether they’re trying to figure each other out or they’re happily enjoying root beer floats, is a keeper. Almost every scene between Timberlake and Wainwright (save the predictable argument sequence) feels absolutely natural.

It’s a combination of the clutter and story’s cut corners that get in the way of things. A letter arrives for Eddie that’s supposed to make things tougher for him, but it’s really only an annoyance. Shelly returns and threatens to take Sam away, but that doesn’t add up to much more than histrionics from Temple. Things go well, then things go wrong, then things go well again. A lot of issues are dealt with, and a lot of heart is on display. It starts out as a small movie, and it stays there. That’s fine. It’s satisfactory but not memorable. That’s too bad.

“Palmer” premiers on Apple TV+ On Jan. 29.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Palmer”

Written by Cheryl Guerriero; directed by Fisher Stevens

With Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb, Juno Temple

Rated R