Palmer – Cheryl Guerriero’s screenplay shines in the hands of Timberlake and Allen.

Palmer premieres on Apple TV + on 29th January 2021

Once upon a time, the weekly cinema listings were full of diversity at any multiplex. Here the big-ticket films of the week were cushioned on either side by small but perfectly formed dramas, many centred on small-town life, social issues and family. Each one of these movies was designed to challenge while leaving the audience in good spirits as they walked from the darkness. Of course, many of these films became classics in their own right, from Radio Flyer to A River Runs Through It, but the space offered to these films in cinema schedules disappeared over time. An obsession with blockbusters has led to multiple showings of the same movie, the small social drama slowly and unfairly relegated to the shadows.

However, in recent years streaming platforms have picked up where cinema left off by giving a voice to the perfectly packaged dramas that once reigned supreme in cinema matinee slots. Palmer is one of those movies. Here we find a rich exploration of masculinity in small-town America that isn’t afraid to strip back the homophobia, fear and ignorance that prevails in many communities.

Justin Timberlake makes a welcome return to the screen as Eddie Palmer, a former football star whose career ended in disgrace with a prison sentence. His return home to Louisiana is bittersweet as he moves in with the grandmother who raised him. However, Palmer soon learns that his grandmother is also caring for Sam (Ryder Allen), the son of Shelly, who lives in a trailer next door. Shelly’s life is a mix of drug addiction and domestic violence that often leads her to disappear for weeks. Meanwhile, Sam is no ordinary boy, as Palmer quickly learns, his love of fairies and princesses challenging Palmer’s view of masculinity.

When Shelly vanishes, leaving Sam with Palmer and his grandmother, Palmer initially gives the boy a wide berth, confused by his mannerisms and his grandmother’s acceptance of his difference. But, when tragedy suddenly strikes, Palmer finds himself the carer of young Sam; and an unlikely role model and support to the boy. However, Sam is also about to become an unlikely mentor to Palmer.

Directed by Fisher Stevens, a man more accustomed to non-fiction work, Palmer sings with confidence. However, the sheer scale of the social conversations raised means that Palmer occasionally lacks the space needed to unfold fully. For example, themes of unemployment and acceptance following prison release feel slightly simplistic in conclusion. While at the same time, the link between poverty, family breakdown and social exclusion needs more time in developing a clear voice. But, despite these flaws, Palmer excels in its conversation on masculinity and gender.

©️Apple TV +

On leaving prison, Palmer is emotionally closed to the pain of his past, his anger bottled up over years of incarceration. While at the same time, his methods of dealing with that anger and emotion sit firmly in alcohol and random sex. Sam initially defies everything he understands masculinity to represent. For Palmer, the boy’s safety, security and future are wrapped in a need for him to ‘man up’ and conform to the masculine stereotypes surrounding him. However, as his relationship with Sam grows, Palmer learns that those very masculine prerequisites led to his own fall from grace. Here the toxic masculinity of the community surrounding him is a hindrance and barrier to diversity and growth. In essence, Palmer’s care for Sam is a rebirth of his beliefs and a challenge to the very foundations his life is built upon.

Justin Timberlake’s assured performance is central to the movie’s success in reflecting discussions on male belonging, identity and pressure. Here his quiet and calm performance is wrapped in the anger and pain of failure. Meanwhile, Ryder Allen shines in his portrayal of Sam, his performance reflecting the innocence of childhood love and belonging. But it is Palmer’s discussions on the antiquated gender roles we rely on in children’s socialisation that elevate this picture above its redemption arc. Here the powerful effects of engrained toxic masculinity find a clear and devastating voice.

While it may not be perfect, Palmer tries hard to convey many of the issues beneath the mental health problems surrounding men. Its narrative challenges damaging notions of masculinity further enhanced over recent years by the likes of Donald J Trump and does so with optimism for a brighter future. And while it may not manage to tie up all the loose ends it creates, Cheryl Guerriero’s screenplay is brave and bold in its vision, leaving us wanting more as the final scenes draw to a close.

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