Thanks largely to the father-son relationship at the center of its plot, Fisher Stevens’ drama about an ex-con’s redemption mostly succeeds.
Tucked between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the Southeastern corner of Louisiana, St. James Parish is home to several petrochemical plants. The state rewards billions in tax breaks for these places to operate, and in exchange, they pollute the water and air for nearby residents, who tend to live around the poverty line. This poisoning is so out of control that this stretch of highway earns the dubious title of “Cancer Alley”.
Palmer, directed by Fisher Stevens (yes, longtime character actor, Fisher Stevens), takes place in one of these small towns in St. James Parish. He doesn’t show any chemical plants spewing smoke into the air, which seems like a missed opportunity, but he does tap into a community where people struggle to get their heads above water. While he uses some shorthand cliches to paint the picture, he at least gets it done (mostly) without resorting to the condescending “poverty porn” of Hillbilly Elegy.
Justin Timberlake stars as Eddie Palmer, a former all-star high school quarterback who gets out of prison after serving a prison sentence for a violent act twelve years prior. He returns to his hometown where this former local legend has to beg for a second chance just to get a custodial job at the local middle school. While staying with his church going grandmother (the always scene stealing June Squibb) he meets Sam (Ryder Allen), a young boy living in a trailer next door. His home life is unstable. His mother, Shelly (Juno Temple), is addicted to drugs, and often disappears, leaving Sam alone for long stretches of time.
After a tragic event, Palmer finds himself as the primary caregiver for Sam, even though being responsible for a child’s well-being is the last thing he wants. However, because this is a movie, Sam slowly wins Palmer over and melts his hardened exterior. Although they have completely different personalities, Palmer connects with Sam over their similarly troubled relationships with their mothers and their outsider status. Palmer is a disgraced former jock, and Sam is a boy that prefers to dress up as a princess and have tea parties rather than throwing a football.
While [Stevens] uses some shorthand cliches to paint the picture, he at least gets it done (mostly) without resorting to the condescending “poverty porn” of Hillbilly Elegy.
It’s Ryder’s performance as a boy who goes against male gender norms in a conservative pocket of a very conservative state that makes the movie worthwhile. He’s unapologetic about who he is, and plays the role so carefree and positively, that it makes the moments where the film reaches hackneyed conflict seem genuinely heartbreaking. When Palmer sees him play with dolls and asks him, “You know you’re a boy right?”, Sam responds with the confusion of someone being scolded for doing a completely normal task, which makes the moment even more painful.
Timberlake’s effortless charm as a musical artist gets him by with most of his serious acting roles, when used effectively, but here it seems like he was cast for where Palmer ends up at the expense of where he begins. Once Palmer starts to get his life together by slowly growing into a strong father figure who teaches Sam how to play the ukulele and gives him a loving home, Timberlake shines. But it’s hard to take him seriously as a hardened ex-felon at the start of the movie. He uses the classic “Sippin’ on Cheap Beer” acting method, perfected by Taylor Kitsch in Friday Night Lights. This is the school of acting where in order to get across how rough and tough your character is without trying hard, you sip on a cheap tallboy (in this case, it’s a lot of Coors) and stare off into space.
The only time the film enters the Hillbilly Elegy zone is with Juno Temple’s character, Shelly. There’s nothing wrong with her as a performer here. She gives it her best shot, and there’s even a scene towards the end of the film between her and her son that’s one of the more affecting moments, but the film does her a disservice by branding her with the “Deadbeat Movie Mom” scarlet letter.
Her scenes mostly have her either screaming at her child, strung out, or screaming at her child while strung out. The film doesn’t give her struggles nearly the amount of empathy it does for Palmer’s past drug addiction or anger management issues. You could literally swap her over the top, redneck play acting dialogue with Amy Adams’ Bev, the mother character in Hillbilly that also lacks any nuance, and not notice a difference.
The rest of the film doesn’t slip as easily into such dubious terrain, and Stevens is able to direct the material with enough sophistication to overcome any shaky story elements or dialogue. At one point early in the film, a character mentions their town is “Still all about church and football”, which is an eye rolling line, but then Stevens backs it up by shooting a game that actually captures the unique flavor of high school football in Louisiana.
There’s not much focus on the game itself. It’s more about the people hanging out together in the bleachers or near the concession stand (including the adorable Sam being more into the cheerleading than the football), coming together as a community to be there for each other, forgetting their past mistakes or current tragedies for just a few hours, sweating from all the humidity and town spirit, but mostly the humidity.
Palmer is available on Apple TV+ January 29th.