By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 29, 2021 at 08:01 PM EST
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Justin Timberlake returns for his first live-action feature film since 2017 with Palmer, a restrained look at toxic masculinity and what it truly means to be someone's parent.

Timberlake plays the titular Eddie Palmer, an ex-con newly returned home from his 12-year stint in jail for attempted murder. When he takes refuge with his grandmother Vivian (an underused June Squibb) while getting back on his feet, he meets Sam (Ryder Allen), a little boy with a drug addict mother and a penchant for dolls and dresses. Palmer is at first put off by Sam's love of "girly" things, but as he takes the child under his wing, he comes to be his greatest advocate and defender.

The film (now streaming on Apple TV+) gets off to a plodding start, letting audiences sit with the characters until they feel like another member of this small town. But Palmer stretches its running time at least 20 minutes past what's necessary for its storytelling.

It's fitting that Fisher Stevens, an actor-director, helmed the project, because its greatest strengths lie in its characters and the quiet moments between the talented cast. It bears the clear hallmarks of an actor's eye with so much emphasis given to what's said when people aren't speaking. One could see the action here working equally well on stage (which isn't a knock on the film so much as a further reiteration that it is a character study more than anything else).

Palmer's journey is one toward becoming a more evolved man, one who learns how to deal with conflict in ways other than the violence that landed him in prison as he opens his heart to a small boy in need. In Sam, he sees not so much a sensitive child who is different from his peers, but a reflection of his younger self — a kid in need of the parental love he lacked from everyone but his grandmother.

Credit: Apple TV+

The scenes between Timberlake and Allen are particularly poignant. Allen makes his feature debut here, and he lives up to the guileless reputation of great child actors. He and Timberlake build their heartwarming bond believably, with Allen's abundant charm doing a lot of heavy lifting.

It's an effective, if slightly on-the-nose, strategy to make a gender-non-conforming child the factor that causes Palmer to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about what it means to be a protector and a man. Timberlake is too restrained as the sullen Palmer, only cracking when he lashes out violently but not letting audiences into his heart as fully as we need to understand his love for Sam.

Palmer effectively pulls at the heartstrings, and it's a lovely meditation on the unexpected bonds we form and the healing they can provide. It has compelling things to say about the state of foster care in the U.S. and the cockeyed ways we define a "parent," but it never quite digs into the meat of the issue as much as it could, instead focusing on the bullying Sam faces and Palmer's answer to it.

There's a long history in Hollywood of tales of gruff, morally ambiguous men whose hearts are melted only by the children under their care (The Mandalorian has made a merchandise juggernaut out of one). Palmer doesn't have anything particularly new to add to the story, but that doesn't mean it isn't still a tender, earnest tale of how love and nurturing can truly change lives. Grade: B

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