Released: 29th January
Seen: 4th Febuary
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A man is living on his own with no real desire to be around other people, especially kids. One day out of the blue a kid ends up on his doorstep and he’s obliged to take care of the youth because something has happened to their parents. His disdain for raising children ends up slowly changing now that he finally met one and just as he turns a corner and becomes a fully functioning member of society, the parent comes back and there’s an emotional scene where everyone realises that this mysterious man is a better parent than the parent, roll credits. Yeah, that’s the basic plot of Palmer and at least a dozen other films that you can probably name (why not name them in the comments, engagement is king!) and it takes an interesting twist to make the story interesting. Palmer has such a twist and it’s pretty impressive.
Palmer’s big change that sets it apart from other stories like it is that the kid, named Sam (Ryder Allen) is a gender non-conforming child who might be male but still enjoys tea parties and wearing dresses and playing with Barbie dolls. The man looking after this kid, Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is an ex-convict on parole and living with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb). Sam comes into their lives because Sam’s mother is a bit of a junkie and ends up going missing for weeks at a time, leaving Sam in Vivian’s care. Eventually, Sam ends up being in the full care of Palmer and so what we end up getting is a story about a former convict and a gender non-conforming child learning from each other and growing as people.
I won’t lie, I was worried when I realised that they were going to have a gender non-conforming child in this film because a part of me worried that it was going to be a “Bigot learns how to not be bigot” story but… it’s not. Palmer has maybe one moment of not getting why Sam might like girly things but by the 25 minute mark, he’s accepting that it’s just who Sam is. If he ever suggests to Sam to not wear girly things, it’s made clear it’s out of fear of how other people will treat him… and then they both go “Screw everyone else” and let Sam wear the damn dress because Palmer is a good man who might not understand everything about people who don’t conform to their assigned gender, but he gets that it makes Sam happy so just go with it.
Most of why this works, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is because Justin Timberlake gives a genuinely moving and engaging performance. He says more with a little look and a small grunt than he could with a monologue and it’s stunning to see how much he makes you believe that Palmer is trying hard to be a better man. Same with Ryder Allen, who is just so good at making Sam this sweet kid who just likes Barbies and hair clips and doesn’t seem to get what the big deal is. Together, they’re dynamite and the scenes that’re just the two of them drinking root beer floats or going to a football game are some of the sweetest parts of the film.
It’s not all just sweet stuff though, the film deals with heavy topics beyond just gender non-conforming children. It touches on drug abuse, the child welfare system, how ex-convicts aren’t able to easily re-enter society, how stupid bigotry is and it doesn’t really half ass these things either. It presents them, shows the effects they have and handles them with a kind of sincerity I wasn’t expecting. Plus, a lot of bigots get punched in the face and I will eternally love seeing bigots suffering because of their bigotry.
Now, this all isn’t to say that the film doesn’t go through the checklist of things one expects from a movie I described in the opening of this review because it does, from courtroom scenes to the shot we’ve all seen where the kid chases after the person who cared for them while that person is carted off by police. There is a lot here that’s cliche and repetitive of things we’ve seen before… Hi, welcome to storytelling 101, every story is repeating older stories. The trick (and why I find this repetition preferable to, say, the repetition of The Marksman) is to still make those stories engaging and find an interesting new detail to add and this film manages to pull that off. Sure, you can tell where the film is going almost down to the minute, but it’s still a sweet little ride.
Palmer is better than it has any right to be. It’s a charming little story that fits right in with modern discussions around gender identity and how we treat prisoners. For a film that could’ve felt bland and forgettable, it manages to be a heartwarming and sweet tale that handles its heavy subject material with care. I’m legitimately impressed at how well this film did what it set out to do, good job Palmer.