Justin Timberlake plays the eponymous Palmer in this gentle, life-affirming film. At its heart, Palmer is an odd-couple movie, charting the unlikely alliance between a fists-first felon and a princess-obsessed little boy.
Palmer has just been released from prison after serving a twelve-year sentence for attempted murder. He moves back in with his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), and reunites with his old schoolmates. He has a lot to deal with, of course: learning to accept the past, and trying to forge a future for himself.
But there’s trouble literally in his yard, where the drug-addicted Shelly (Juno Temple) rents a trailer from Vivian. Shelly is sweet but chaotic; her on-off boyfriend, Jerry (Dean Winters), is the shouty, violent sort. And, in the midst of all this turbulence is seven-year-old Sam (Ryder Allen), a boy with a penchant for fairy wings and high-heeled boots, who likes nothing more than styling Vivian’s hair and holding dolls’ tea-parties with his best friend, Emily (Molly Sue Harrison).
When Shelly takes off and (spoiler alert) Vivian dies, Palmer finds himself tasked with looking after Sam. Initially reluctant, he tries to refuse, but this is a small town, and his old pal Coles (Jesse Boyd) – now the local cop – tells him Shelly does this all the time and she’ll soon be back, and begs him not to abandon Sam to ‘the system.’ Of course, Palmer knows only too well what state institutions can do to the soul, so he shoulders the burden and takes the boy on.
They don’t have much in common, but they each have a lot to learn, and that’s the point. It’s to director Fisher Stevens’ credit that this never seems saccharine. And there’s some real nuance in the script too: yes, Sam is bullied at school for being ‘different,’ but writer Cheryl Guerriero makes him so much more than a victim. His sense of self never wavers in the face of his tormentors, and he has allies as well as enemies. Shelly might not be a contender for mother-of-the-year, but she has given her son the confidence to be proud of who he is.
Alisha Wainwright plays Maggie, Sam’s sympathetic teacher and Palmer’s new lover. They make a delightful trio, a model pseudo-family, all kindness and acceptance, and all three flourish in the others’ care. But their idyll is temporary, and Shelly is bound to return to claim her son…
Of course, none of this is groundbreaking: it’s a well-trodden tale of redemption, and not a particularly subtle one. But it’s all done with such generosity of spirit, and with such understated, believable performances, that it belies its own simplicity.
This really is a lovely film.