Palmer premieres on Apple TV + 29th January 2021
Once upon a time, the weekly cinema listings at any multiplex were full of diversity. The blockbusters and big-ticket films of the week, cushioned on either side by small but perfectly formed dramas; most of which centred on small-town life, social issues and family. Each one designed to challenge, while at the same time leaving the audience in good spirits as they walked from the darkness. Many of these films became classics in their own right, from Radio Flyer to A River Runs Through It. But over time the space offered in cinema schedules disappeared; our obsession with blockbusters leading to multiple showings of the same film. The small social drama slowly and unfairly relegated to the shadows.
However, in recent years streaming platforms have picked up where cinema left off; giving voice to the perfectly packaged dramas that once reigned supreme in cinema matinee slots. Palmer is one of those movies, its beautifully written screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero challenging the audience while also retaining optimism. At the film’s heart, a rich exploration of masculinity in smalltown America. One that isn’t afraid to strip back the homophobia, fear and ignorance that prevails in many communities entrenched in outdated gender roles and stereotypes.
Justin Timberlake makes a welcome return to the screen as Eddie Palmer; a former football star whose career ended in ignominy with a prison sentence. His return home to Louisiana 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 young son of Shelly who lives in a trailer next door. Shelly’s life, a mix of drug addiction and domestic violence, often leading 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 also becomes an unlikely mentor to Palmer, transforming his life and healing his past pain.
Directed by Fisher Stevens, a man more accustomed to non-fiction work, Palmer sings with quiet confidence. However, the sheer scale of the social conversations raised mean that many lack the space 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.
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 anger and emotion sit firmly in drink, random sex and exclusion. For Palmer, Sam initially defies everything he understands masculinity to represent. The boy’s safety, security and future wrapped in a need 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 fall from grace. The toxic masculinity of the community surrounding him a hindrance and barrier to diversity and growth. His care for Sam, not only a rebirth of his beliefs but a challenge to the very foundations his life is built upon.
Central to the movie’s success in reflecting discussions on male belonging, identity and pressure is Justin Timberlake’s assured performance. His nuanced, quiet and calm characterisation wrapped in the long-suppressed anger and pain of failure. Meanwhile, Ryder Allen shines in his portrayal of Sam. His performance reflecting the innocence of childhood love and belonging. Alongside the damaging need of adults to place antiquated gender roles front and centre in children’s socialisation. The effects of which often lead to emotional suppression, mental health problems and a ‘stiff upper lip’ silence in men.
Palmer may not be perfect, but it tries hard to convey issues that sit beneath the mental health problems surrounding manhood. Its narrative not only challenging damaging notions of masculinity further enhanced over recent years by the likes of Donald J Trump but doing 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, in a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve.
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