‘Palmer’: Justin Timberlake Goes for Rugged Likeability in Familiar Tale of Redemption

Justin Timberlake has always given off that vibe of being an all-around nice guy. This has allowed him to usually play convincing smooth talkers whenever he dabbles in acting. Apple TV’s “Palmer” gives Timberlake a chance to tap into his inner convict on parole. He’s still completely recognizable in the role, because this is a jailbird with a heart of gold. It’s also a testament to how charisma works, because Timberlake still generates enough of a sense of empathy within a very standard redemption drama. 

Small town Louisiana is the setting, which is the kind of terrain movies love to use for tales of America’s downtrodden getting second chances. Eddie Palmer (Timberlake) has just been released from prison after serving 12 years for a dumb robbery. Still disoriented by returning to a world he’s been away from for so long, Palmer first stays with his grandmother, the pious church-goer Vivian (June Squibb). Next door in a rundown trailer lives junkie Shelly (Juno Temple), whose gender nonconforming son Sam (Ryder Allen) tends to stay over at Vivian’s. Palmer soon gets a job at Sam’s elementary school as a janitor and all seems stable. When Shelly goes missing Vivian takes Sam in for longer than usual. Then Vivian suddenly passes away in her sleep and Palmer is left caring for Sam, at first hesitantly taking on the task but then gradually discovering a surprise bond with the kid.

Movies like “Palmer” that don’t try to reinvent the wheel can work best as showcases for good acting. Director Fisher Stevens, working from a script by Cheryl Guerriero, efficiently directs a by-the-book rural drama. It would almost be a truly family-friendly movie if it didn’t feature the kind of obligatory sex scenes, like one between Palmer and Shelly, which suggest rural Americans always follow a beer with rough, dingy intercourse. For the most part we can easily predict every turn the story will take. Guerriero’s characters are likeable, which makes the viewing experience not feel like a chore. Timberlake makes Palmer into a careful, mild-mannered guy who is prone to snap if pushed far enough. He’s not some vicious criminal or mastermind, instead like many actual petty crimes his story is a classic case of dumb choices having terrible consequences. It’s a more rugged version of his working class time thief from “In Time.” Palmer is not a criminal who learns to love others, his bond with Sam grows out of the fact that he is a genuinely good person finding his way again.

The other characters surrounding Palmer give the film a vivid small town feel written with sparse, realistic dialogue. Sam is used to explore the lingering homophobia in American communities. His classmates wonder why he dresses like a girl and at first Palmer also needs to learn to accept Sam’s dismissal of gender labels. One of the more endearing moments comes when Palmer catches Sam being bullied in the school playground and threatens one of the bullies. There’s also Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), Sam’s very kind teacher who is conveniently attractive and divorced. Of course she’s going to fall for Palmer and give him a real shot at starting a new life, but the movie can’t be faulted for at least avoiding crass melodrama. At times, “Palmer” has the meandering feel of a tour of this little town, complete with the old high school buddies who are now drinking roughnecks, or how every man seems to know something salacious about Shelly. Juno Temple also pulls off her role well, becoming a sad addict deluding herself into thinking she should keep Sam.

“Palmer” ends on a fittingly heart-tugging third act as our hero decides maybe he should adopt Sam but many obstacles arise, including the fact he’s on parole. We’ve been to many of these custody hearings before, but it’s hard not to root for an individual truly reforming and wanting to do genuine good. Timberlake also shines in a surprisingly wrenching courtroom scene where he sheds sincere tears. The flashy tech entrepreneur Sean Parker from “The Social Network” that proved Timberlake could act disappears, and in his place we get a more mature man who discovers what truly has value in life. In this sense “Palmer” offers lessons many other dramas have delivered before, but some lessons are worth repeating when they allow us to revisit a natural talent who should be given more chances on screen.

Palmer” begins streaming Jan. 29 on Apple TV+.