Apple TV+ adds to its slate of original films with “Palmer,” a heartfelt story of unlikely guardianship and mutual understanding. Justin Timberlake stars as the film’s namesake, who gets a job as an elementary school janitor after serving 12 years in prison.
Now seen as a faded football star-turned-felon, his fresh start is upended by a seven-year-old neighbor whose mom takes off, leaving no one to care for him. Palmer, who is treated like an outcast in his small Louisiana hometown, feels a certain responsibility to Sam (Ryder Allen), who is also judged for a very different reason: Sam loves princesses, dolls, dancing and makeup. It often makes him the target of ridicule from both kids and narrow-minded adults. From the start, he and Palmer share a feeling of being treated differently, and often unfairly.
The two grow together in this sweet story from director Fisher Stevens and writer Cheryl Guerriero, who said it took 10 years for the film to get made.
Stevens is an Oscar winner for Best Documentary, which could explain why the film seems to hold such simple truths that in real life we make too complicated. The drama is rarely contrived, and Guerriero has already shared stories of grandmothers and kids who are comforted by this portrayal of difference – and the film hasn’t even been released yet. Timberlake shows understated strength in the role, and his performance feels as solid to the viewer as his character’s presence does to young Sam, who has never had a parental figure. Young Allen musters great depth and elicits empathy completely unique to Sam – he is not merely playing a child who is different, he is that child, and Timberlake mirrors (I had to, I’m sorry) the audience’s desire to see him loved.
A timely message of love, acceptance and forgiveness is only the surface of this special, well-paced drama. It also gets to the heart of how we label people: by the sport they play, the clothes they wear or the mistakes they make. People are often more than just one thing, and performances by Timberlake and Allen show that characters should be, too. “Palmer” is a reminder to look past your expectations for other people. Maybe the project was meant to take 10 years, so it could reach us today, when the need to look deeper is more necessary than ever.
The simple story is a testament to the power of letting a story do its work without telling the audience how to think, and instead allowing them to observe and feel. The difference that can be made in someone’s life when you put aside judgement is not a new theme, but it feels fresh and needed in this feature – a triumph for Timberlake, a charming debut for Allen, and the launchpad for more well-crafted dramas from Guerriero.
“Palmer” begins streaming on Apple TV+ Jan. 29.