A former small-town football hero returns home to rural Louisiana after serving a 12-year prison sentence, where he becomes involved in the messy home life of a young boy living next door to his grandmother.
Starring as the hulking, sulking, melancholy ex-con, Justin Timberlake looks and acts like someone a few hundred, hard miles away from the polished pop superstar who started out as a perky preteen Mouseketeer on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club before launching the squeaky-clean boy band NSYNC.
As NSYNC sang, “Bye Bye Bye.”
Starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Ryder Allen
Directed by Fisher Stephens
How to Watch: On Apple+ Jan. 29
The multi-millon-selling singer, songwriter and producer has also forged a formidable acting career with roles in some 20 movies, including The Social Network, Bad Teacher, Inside Llewyn Davis and Wonder Wheel. (I’ll be kind and won’t count the computer-animated/live-action 2010 unnatural-disaster comedy pile-up that was Yogi Bear, for which Timblerlake voiced Yogi’s short-stuff companion, Boo Boo.)
His last movie was Trolls World Tour, released in 2020, a sequel to the 2016 animated musical romp based on the frizzy-haired toy dolls of the 1960s.
Palmer is Timberlake’s return to more meaty, serious dramatic fare, as his character rebuilds his life, becoming a reluctant caretaker and champion for a child who doesn’t fit in anywhere else in the community.
We meet Palmer when he gets off the bus in his little backwater hometown, then hikes it to the house of his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him. We find out she’s the only family he’s got left, and that she has a few rules, like getting up and taking her to church every Sunday.
Looking out the window of her house, Palmer sees the rundown mobile home next door. Vivian tells him she regrets renting it to the young mother, Shelly, and her son, Sam (Ryder Allen), living there now—because Shelly’s boyfriend is always around, causing trouble.
Sam is “different” from the other boys, at Vivian’s church and at his school. He wears a barrette to keep his hair out of his eyes, he plays with dolls, he sashays and prisses when he walks. He wants nothing more than to become a member of the princess club, from his favorite cartoon TV show.
In a more, ahem, enlightened community, Sam would be considered “gender fluid,” or perhaps “non-binary.” Most people in Palmer’s hometown are, well, a little more blunt.
“There’s something wrong with that boy,” says one of Vivian’s church-going friends.
When Shelly runs off with her boyfriend, kindly Vivian takes in Sam to live—with her and Palmer. For how long, they don’t know.
Like just about everyone else, Palmer initially doesn’t know quite what to make of Sam. “You know you’re a boy, right?” he asks him. “Boys don’t play with dolls.”
“Well, I’m a boy,” Sam answers him. “And I do.”
Director Fisher Stevens—an actor turned award-winning documentary filmmaker—takes the movie into some predictable places, first as a “buddy picture” showing the gradual bonding process of Palmer and Sam, then layering on emotionally wrenching overtones that might remind movie lovers of break-up dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer or Marriage Story.
Palmer becomes Sam’s guardian angel, stepping in to stop schoolyard bullies—or busting a redneck’s head to impart some tough lessons about tolerance. The pop idol who once sang about “bringing sexy back”—and lays down some slick R&B gospel grooves in his new single, “Better Days,” with New Jersey rapper Ant Clemons—now brings out his fist to strike a blow against hateful ignorance of people who react with meanness when they “see something that they ain’t used to seein’,” especially when it’s hurtful to a child.
It’s a strong, beefy performance from Timberlake, but he gives much of the film over to his 9-year-old co-star, who makes a memorable movie debut (Allen’s only previous acting experience was an appearance on a 2017 episode of TV’s Law & Order). Though she disappears for much of the movie, British actress Juno Temple (mostly recently on Hulu’s Ted Lasso) does a convincing turn as Sam’s drug-addicted, Southern-fried, trailer-trash mom. That’s Dean Winters—yep, the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate commercials—as her loutish, abusive boyfriend. Alisa Wainright is Sam’s teacher, the lovely Ms. Hayes, who uses a school Halloween party—when Sam comes in a princess costume—to gently teach a lesson to her kids that people can “be whoever you wanna be.”
As Palmer puts his own life back together, he finds many of the missing pieces in building a better world for Sam. This deep-South drama’s sensitive, humanistic approach to atonement, acceptance, inclusion and compassion will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like a loner, an outcast, an oddity—and who might wish they had someone like Palmer in their corner, advocating for them, standing up for them, loving them, fighting for them.
“There’s things in this world you can be, and things in this world that you can’t,” Palmer tells Sam at one point, worried about how hard it’s going to be for Sam to acclimate to a world seemingly set against him. But by the end of the film, Palmer has changed his mind; Sam can be a princess, Palmer can be whole, and the circle of family can be as wide, and as full, as you make it.
And Timberlake can be a serious movie star, again, in a movie like Palmer.