Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Justin Timberlake emerged from the boy band, super group, NSYNC, to occupy centre stage as an R & B and hip-hop headliner. But what you may not know is that he has also developed into a versatile actor who is increasingly tackling complex and sophisticated roles. In case you missed it, that is definitely the case with Palmer (2021). Written by Cheryl Guerriero and directed by Fisher Stevens, this quiet and thoughtful drama centres around Eddie Palmer (played by Justin Timberlake) and an effervescent little white, bespectacled boy named Sam (played by Ryder Allen). Sam lives in a trailer with his commonly drug-addled mother and whatever abusive boyfriend she has on the go. Palmer first meets Sam when his mother – who rents from Palmer’s grandmother Vivian (played by June Squibb) – does a disappearing act for several weeks, a frequent occurrence. It is this circumstance which prompts Palmer’s kindly grandmother to take Sam in (again), in so doing putting the young, inquisitive boy in direct contact with her grandson.
The moral dilemmas and dramatic tension arise from the specifics of Palmer’s situation and Sam’s identity. Why, you might ask, is a grown ass, thirty-something-year-old man living with his grandmother? Well, Palmer has just been released from a twelve-year stint in prison where he was incarcerated for attempted murder. Before that, he was a hero in his small Louisiana town, receiving a scholarship to play varsity football at Louisiana State University. With his athletics career derailed by a sport’s injury, Palmer’s life soon began to fall apart as he dropped out of school and went down the disastrous path of drug use and petty crimes with hometown friends. The film relates Palmer’s past through snippets of conversation, not flashbacks. Indeed, we never see Palmer play football, so the weight of his unfulfilled dream is felt through its absence. The attempted murder conviction was Palmer’s wakeup call. Now a free man, when we meet him, he is attempting to rebuild his life with the support of his loving but stubborn grandmother.
The film ably demonstrates the disastrous aftermath of a prison sentence. Even for a white man like Palmer with friends on the local police force, he initially struggles to get a job when people learn that he is a convicted felon. It is only with the endorsement of the black head janitor named Sibs (played by Lance E. Nichols) at the local elementary school, the same one that Sam attends, that Palmer can get a job and begin to regain some of his dignity. However, as Sibs explains to Palmer, trust must be earned and for now at least, the newest member of the janitorial staff can’t have a set of keys for the school property until he proves himself.
Set in a small town that has seen better days and where the main community entertainment is high school football, the movie mainly moves between Palmer’s work life at school and his home life at his grandmother’s small house. It is at the latter where we see a level of recklessness when he carelessly has sex with Sam’s mother Shelly (played by Juno Temple), a lustful, aggressive connection utterly devoid of affection or tenderness. The next morning, both his grandmother and Sam are witness to his poor choice as Palmer emerges from her trailer with a cigarette in hand. While Sam innocently represents the sexual encounter as a “sleepover,” his grandmother’s knowing glance says it all as she directs Palmer to get ready for church.
In the community – meaning the church, the local bar, and the high school football game – we see that Palmer still has friends who are both happy to have him back and regretful of how they neglected him during his prison sentence. It becomes clear that one friend, a police officer named Coles (played by Jessie C. Boyd) also regrets leaving Palmer to take the fall when he too was clearly in on the crime that put him inside. Palmer, it emerges, took the blame, and suffered the legal consequences and it is implied that he did so because Coles’ father was a police officer who would not have tolerated his criminal activity.
In case it is not yet clear, as a heterosexual, beer-drinking, former football star, Palmer embodies traditional masculinity. But there is also a profound tenderness in him which emerges when he sees the potential threats that may harm a blissfully innocent and optimistic Sam. You see, Sam is a vibrant, joyous, and brave boy who loves all things feminine including princesses, fairies, barbie dolls, makeup, and tea parties. Although it is unclear if Sam is trans, it is clear that he unflinchingly embraces his feminine qualities as a gender non-conforming boy. While this is not a problem for his best friend (a little white girl) or his astute, caring, and beautiful black teacher, Maggie Hayes (played by Alisha Wainwright), it is a problem for many other people like Palmer’s closed-minded male friends and the bullies at Sam’s school.
The drama is considerably heightened when Vivian dies suddenly in her sleep, leaving Palmer to care for Sam whose mother is still missing in action. Although Palmer drives Sam to the police station with his possessions, when he learns that he will be placed in the foster care system, he reconsiders and brings him back to his grandmother’s home. The movie does a brilliant job at representing the evolution of the relationship between the always joyful and open-hearted Sam and the initially cold, distant, and close-minded Palmer. But Palmer’s objections to Sam’s TV and clothing choices do not come from a place of hatred or even control, but from a desire to protect him from the world’s intolerant bullies who use violence against things and people they do not understand. On several occasions Palmer asks Sam pointed questions about his love of all things beautiful and feminine, insisting that Sam comprehend the distinctions between girls and boys. In one poignant exchange, when Sam is watching his favourite program about flying, female fairies, Palmer asks if Sam sees any boys in the program. Sam responds that he does not, to which Palmer says, “what does that tell you?”. With the beautiful innocence of unsullied childhood, Sam responds, “that I could be the first!”
Palmer’s affection for Sam begins to transform their relationship and his understanding of the little boy. As time passes and Sam’s mother has still not returned, Palmer ceases treating Sam like an adult roommate (who must make his own lunches – cookies – and get himself on the school bus) and starts to care for him like his son (making him a sandwich and driving him to school). Instead of scolding him for his love of his favourite fairy cartoon, he helps him to write a letter asking for membership in their club and – after failed attempts to convince him to dress as a prince – succumbs and buys him a pink fairy costume for Hallowe’en. Like any good father, Palmer also seeks to impart moral lessons to Sam. When Sam reveals that he feels bad for stealing a snow globe from a classmate, Palmer does not tell Sam what to do. Rather, he cleverly prompts Sam to consider how his classmate must be feeling with the disappearance of her beloved snow globe. In the ensuing scene, we see Palmer and Sam depart for school early so that Sam can place the snow globe back on his classmate’s desk. Indeed, Palmer’s fierce affection for Sam is also evident when he witnesses him being bullied by another boy on the school playground. Palmer’s response? After reprimanding the poorly behaved children, he threatens to break the arm of the boy who physically attacked Sam if he should ever touch him again.
But Palmer’s emotional maturation is also encouraged and supported by the kindly teacher Maggie, who astutely notices Sam’s deprivation and quietly supports Palmer in his care of Sam: inviting them to go bowling, helping Palmer to deal with his growing pile of unopened mail, offering Sam free food at the football concession stand, and checking to see if Sam has a Hallowe’en costume. Astutely, Maggie also notices Palmer’s hesitancy with technology, like his lack of a cell phone which symbolizes his fear of re-entering society. The romantic attraction between Maggie and Palmer grows with their emotional bond developing as they spend time together supporting and caring for Sam. When they finally connect sexually, it is passionate, tender, and deliberate, the complete opposite of Palmer’s impulsive and lustful night with Sam’s mother, Shelly.
But sometimes good things come to an end. When Shelly returns weeks later, although his heart is clearly breaking, Palmer does “the right thing” and directs Sam to return to his mother’s trailer. However, chaos soon ensues as Shelly is still using and Palmer is unable to resist intervening when her low life boyfriend physically assaults her and Sam. The result? The police are called after Palmer flees with Sam and he is taken back to jail. In what is arguably the most harrowing scene of the film, Fisher Stevens creates a tightly cropped closeup on the police cruiser with only Palmer’s face visible inside the rear passenger side window. But as the car pulls away, we see Sam chasing the car, distraught and crying out for Palmer, his voice growing fainter and his body getting smaller as the distance opens up between him and the car.
Once released from jail (Cole has come through and Shelly has retracted her accusation of kidnapping), Palmer approaches Shelly offering her money and asking her to sign Sam over to his guardianship. She initially refuses and it soon becomes clear that regardless of Palmer’s track record in caring for Sam, the courts will not entrust Sam to his care without her consent due to his previous imprisonment. The film’s climax revolves around Sam’s precarious future. Will he be forced to live with a negligent and drug-addicted mother, or will she surrender the care of her son to Palmer?
Palmer is a film with remarkable actors that deliver emotionally-rich performances. There are also several powerful symbolic moments in this touching film. Near the end of the film, Sibs finally bestows a set of school keys on Palmer, a sign of his trustworthiness. As Palmer departs the school with Sam at his side, he turns back to see Maggie who has just texted him on his new cell phone, a sign of his reintegration into society. The smile on his face tells us that the message is personal, romantic, perhaps even sexy, a sign of their intensifying relationship. And finally, when Palmer opens the mailbox and presents a large envelope to Sam, his eyes are alight with the sight of his first letter. Inside is the certificate from his favourite TV show with the flying fairies. With Palmer’s support, Sam is indeed a recognized member, a sign of good things to come!