Is Justin Timberlake an awards-worthy actor?
It’s a question I wouldn’t have entertained back in the late 2000s and early 2010s when the singer paused making records to pursue movies full-time. Timberlake has an effortless charisma, which helped him make positive impressions in films like the Oscar-winning drama The Social Network and the romantic comedy Friends with Benefits. However, his choices reflected a hesitance to challenge or play against his winning charm or push his acting limits. Like other “singers who act” before him, Timberlake’s movie career appeared to be an exercise in career fortification rather than a genuine pursuit.
Palmer will come as a genuine surprise for those still working from that assumption. The film, streaming on Apple TV+, is Justin Timberlake’s first film in four years, unlike any role he’s played. Eddie Palmer is a former college football star who’s returning to Louisiana after 12 years in jail for attempted murder. His grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) takes him into her home. She occasionally looks after Sam (Ryder Allen), a young boy who lives next door that his drug-addicted mother often abandons. Besides the typical adolescent precociousness and disregard for boundaries, Sam likes to watch princess cartoons, plays with dolls, and wears feminine clothing. Palmer is initially put off by Sam but eventually warms up to him as the two are left to fend for themselves against a community that finds them difficult to reconcile.
“Gruff, sullen ex-convict” doesn’t sound like a Justin Timberlake role, which is the point. There is no wink and a smile, or a well-placed joke, to hide behind. Palmer is a character that requires the complete absence of vanity to convey the deep brokenness beneath the rough exterior and the inherent goodness that would allow him to look past his perceptions and prejudices to love Sam like his own child. Someone like Christian Bale or Joaquin Phoenix might gain 40 pounds for the role.
Timberlake doesn’t go through that kind of transformation. He looks heftier and grizzlier than he would be on-stage at the Grammys, but the person on-screen is clearly Justin Timberlake. The change is in his movements throughout the film. He’s tentative and quiet, self-consciously observing his friends and neighbors, making sure he’s behaving to their expectations. You can sense the anger simmering beneath the niceties and his practiced control.
It’s thoughtful work that bolsters the scenes where Palmer lets his guard down: to grieve his grandmother, to connect with Sam, and then to fight vigorously on his behalf. Timberlake is downright revelatory in these moments, revealing a level of skill and emotional vulnerability that is shocking. His explosive anger, heartbreak, and desperation are all palpable and fully realized. Timberlake is allowed to use his charm when he’s bonding with Sam or flirting with his teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), but it’s not a gift for the heavy lifting he does throughout the film. He still has command over the character and realistically shows the kind of person he might’ve been had his life hadn’t taken such a dark turn. To call this his best performance ever doesn’t fully communicate just how impressive Timberlake ends up being.
Sadly, Palmer itself doesn’t reach its star’s heights. The film is an amalgamation of countless before it, where misunderstood adults are paired with misunderstood children to discover themselves and each other. There is a looming threat of being derivative and predictable, and although some of the plot beats are unexpected, director Fisher Stevens lays out the destination from the very beginning. Palmer’s one unique feature is Sam and his utter disinterest in subscribing to traditional gender norms. It’s clear from Sam’s first scene that he is different from other boys, but time is exhaustingly wasted driving that trait home, to the point that it begins to feel exploitative. That time could’ve fleshed out Sam’s history with his mother and how her absences affect him, or how the community regards him (it feels like people had no issue with Sam until Palmer showed up). Moonlight, Palmer’s closest relative, has a heartrending scene about homophobic slurs that was profound and enriched the characters’ relationship. Palmer sets up a similar moment and squanders the opportunity for an honest discussion about gender identity and homophobia in favor of the kind of empty platitudes you’d find in a Lifetime movie.
Palmer’s utter lack of ambition doesn’t diminish its heartwarming capabilities. There are moments of emotional warmth and weight to be found, and Stevens does a good job making them feel genuinely earned. Once he finally lets Sam’s gender expression be, Stevens builds Sam and Palmer’s relationship with care, without zapping the film of its momentum. Timberlake and Ryder Allen’s excellent chemistry is responsible for much of its success. You can’t help but smile watching Palmer help Sam write a letter requesting membership to Penelope’s Flying Princess Club and Palmer’s participation (with bewilderment) in Sam’s tea party with a female classmate. The only reason why you might not dissolve into tears as intended is that the film often trips over its own feet, trying to manage plot threads that Stevens should’ve excised entirely. The film finally gets out of its way to its credit, ending with a simple but deeply felt moment.
Palmer is a perfectly good movie that is frustrating because it could’ve been great. Were it willing to push itself further, we might be having a different conversation entirely about its awards prospects. It’s a shame because Justin Timberlake delivers the kind of performance that might at the very least net him a Golden Globe nomination. Nevertheless, he should be very proud of his work on this film. If the goal was to make us re-assess what we know of him as an actor, he succeeded.