Palmer (2021)

“You just gotta get yourself back out there.”

There were a few moving moments and flourishes the first time I sat through the sensitive yet seriously overwrought Palmer, and I have to admit that I left a little underwhelmed. The shaky script prioritizes the clumsy plot over strong character development and the whole thing is too melodramatic. But it’s also a film about second chances, which it just barely deserved. So I watched it again. Much to my surprise though, Palmer was somehow worse the next time around, and is a textbook example of forced drama getting in the way of authenticity. It’s not a bad redemption film…just a rather empty and altogether disappointing one.

His named is Eddie but he likes to go by Palmer (Justin Timberlake). Maybe it’s because he went away to prison for 12 years, served his time, and wants his last name to be the last name he ever goes by. Palmer was a star athlete until he went down the wrong path, which ultimately led him back home, where church and football are a package deal running rampant through the veins of the small Louisiana township. He temporarily lives with his beloved Grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) and begrudgingly forms a bond with his youngster neighbor Sam (Ryder Allen) in the trailer across the way. These two polar opposites are uniform outcasts, and the closer they get, the more realized a sense of a possible home and family becomes. There’s hope floating here.

While it can be quite the emotional endeavor – or at least desperately tries to be –  Palmer is also plagued by a sense of seriousness, rarely allowing levity or joy to inspire the stodgy story. The acting is mostly fine, with Juno Temple once again showcasing her oft underutilized skill as Sam’s drug addict mother Shelly. Timberlake is strong when he gets to act opposite someone and is weak when he has to convey inward emotions through his lonely expressions. And in a rare turn of events, the newcomer Allen is actually at his best when the stakes are the gravest. He’s still so young, and while his performance is rough around the edges, it’s imbued with the kind of honesty you can’t fake. It’s so clear he identifies with his character more than anybody else in the cast. That’s a compliment to him and a harsh criticism of the film as a whole.

So much of Palmer lives and dwells on the surface of what it means to really grieve and feel remorse, and it’s a shame the script didn’t take the time to examine and expand the background given how much consideration was given to Palmer and his actions. It’s telling that he’s expected to steal, to resort to violence, that his first night home finds him nearly carrying his towel and toothbrush with him as if he were still imprisoned. Those elements color his character, and the film’s biggest hindrance is how the rest of the characters don’t exist outside the palm of the hand of Palmer’s leading man. More thoughtful, honest writing fueled by outward thinking could have made this passionately progressive movie more worthwhile and more substantive.

“You can just be whoever you wanna be.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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