Already featuring a solid and eclectic library of TV shows, streaming service Apple TV+ is certainly attempting to ramp up their film offerings following Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers and the upcoming Tom Holland drama Cherry from the Russo Brothers. However their latest offering Palmer, which stars Justin Timberlake, is genuinely a real surprise.

Directed by Fisher Stevens, Palmer centres on former high-school and college football star Eddie, who’s promising sports career was crushed as he was imprisoned for a violent crime. Returning to his small hometown in Louisiana following a 12 year sentence, Eddie finds support from his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) as he attempts to reintegrate with society. Vivian also takes her young neighbour Sam (Ryder Allen) in, as his mother abandons him once again, and over time, Palmer forms an unlikely bond with the boy. The pair discover that they’re the family they never had, but there are certain hurdles which threaten the new life which Palmer has built.

For a drama that’s pretty much gone under the radar with little to no marketing, Palmer is certainly one of the biggest surprises of January so far. The former convict attempting to turn his life around is a pretty well worn trope in this type of film, and Palmer could easily have strayed into predictable territory, particularly with the drug addiction theme. However the central relationship between the young Sam and Palmer certainly elevates it. Palmer’s earnest transformation, thanks to the supportive connections he creates, is hugely emotional and surprisingly heartwarming. His reintegration into the small Louisiana community is a real journey full of ups and downs, with director Stevens cleverly framing the duo as outcasts, leading you to invest and genuinely root for them. 

But what really sets this film apart is the positive focus on the gender nonconforming Sam in such a small town setting. He plays with dolls and tea sets, loves the cartoon Penelope and the Princess and even dresses up as her for Halloween. Sam doesn’t care about the small minded views of certain residents, and yes he’s bullied for his appearance, but this doesn’t make him sway from who he is. It’s this strength and courage which eventually wins Palmer over, and their unlikely friendship helps give him his own strength and acceptance, along with the courage to pursue a better life for the both of them. It’s Sam’s resilience, particularly considering his home life, which sparks Palmer’s redemptive drive.

Justin Timberlake further cements his acting status following performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and The Social Network. Palmer is certainly his best role yet thanks to the earnest and heartfelt arc he’s afforded, along with the fantastic chemistry he shares with co-star Ryder Allen. His journey from sullen and stoic to accepting is hugely moving, particularly with his attempts to move on with his life and away from the toxic masculinity of his former school friends. He makes mistakes when protecting Sam, typically leaning into violence as a means of solving certain issues, but his drive to be a better man and guardian for the young boy is admirable. However newcomer Ryder Allan is the real star of the show; it’s so surprising that this is his first feature role as he’s so outstanding, bringing a certain energy and huge likeability to the role. Allan’s Sam proves the real heart and soul of the film, with his charm and friendship wonderfully affecting Eddie’s views and outlook. 

Palmer also features an impressive supporting cast with notable performances from June Squibb, Alisha Wainwright and Juno Temple. Squibb perfectly plays the tough as nails but hugely caring role, bringing a real warmth and nurturing nature to the character. Vivian is clearly a positive influence for both Palmer and Sam, and clearly sees the similarities between the two. Juno Temple, who regularly steals scenes in Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, completely transforms for the role of Sam’s drug addicted mother Shelly. She’s completely committed to the role, nailing the accent, along with the mannerisms and behaviour of an addict. Wainwright is hugely supportive as Sam’s teacher and Palmer’s love interest, and it’s great to see such a positive central romance in a drama, particularly as she proves a great foundation and moral compass for Palmer.

The cinematography from Tobias A. Schliesser brings a certain grainy and grittiness to the proceedings, accompanied with a certain visual flair for highlighting the natural backdrops with stunning sunrises and sunsets. With a 25-day shoot and small budget, the creative team do a great job with bringing a realistic small-town setting to life, particularly with key scenes taking place in the local bar, church and the small, family run police station.

Verdict

With a hugely moving tale of redemption and acceptance, along with fantastic performances from Ryder Allen and Justin Timberlake, Palmer is another strong original entry from Apple TV+. While the pacing slows towards the third act, extending the lengthy runtime, the heartwarming narrative more than makes up for it – I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if the central duo’s names are mentioned come awards season.

Rating: ★★★★

Palmer is available on Apple TV+ from 29 January 2021.