Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake), a former college sports star, returns to his hometown after a stint in prison. His grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) cares for a little boy who irks Eddie and lives next door, named Sam (Ryder Allen). Sam isn't like other boys. He plays with dolls, wears a clip in his hair, and dresses up like a fairy princess for Halloween. When Sam comes into Eddie's care, after his mother leaves without a word, the two form a bond. Eddie also grows close with Sam's teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright).
When musician-and-occasional-actor Justin Timberlake initially arrives on the scene in 'Palmer', the story stalls, not so much because of his sombre, subdued performance, but because of the clichéd and overdone nature of the narrative. As well as struggling to land a job, faced with prejudices over being a convict, we see Palmer meets some friends in the bar who have moved on from the high school experience they shared together, becoming fathers, one becoming a cop. He sleeps with a woman he meets in the bar, who happens to be Sam's mom, and who his grandma describes as a "troublemaker."
June Squibb doesn't get nearly enough credit for the wonderful, naturally warm, and surprisingly humourous actress she is. It's a shame her time on the screen is so short-lived. Wainwright, who takes her place as the female lead, is fine, not that she's given much to work with in her character.
Juno Temple delivers ably (again, there's not a lot of depth of character here) as Sam's mom Shelly. If there's one standout performance from 'Palmer' it's not our titular hero, but Sam himself. He's this sweet, sensitive, chubby little thing with a quiet, admirable confidence. Now obviously we've seen this whole "coming to care for the child that the protagonist initially wants nothing to do with" over and over (superhero movie 'Logan' and family animation 'Despicable Me' represent two distinct examples that utilise the trope). But it's a tried and true method that pulls at the heart strings.
Still you wish they'd been a little more creative than the obligatory "bonding with the kid and concurrently romancing a love interest while playing bowling as some indie song plays in the background" scene (Eugh, so much indie music). At least the film improves in its third act, as it dives further into the injustices of the systems these characters find themselves in, and the devastation of finding a family and being immediately torn from it.
That leaves us to the discussion of Timberlake's lead performance (which we pointedly left until last). It won't garner awards attention, but there are fleeting moments when he evokes something extraordinary. It's a shame that his expression just seems blank most of the time. Once the singer can set aside the time from his music career, it'd be worth him finding an acting mentor, because there's something there.
'Palmer' is on Apple TV+ from this Friday, 29 January.