‘Palmer’ Review: A Crisis of Masculinity

Like a bad egg set to boil, a rugged ex-convict softens and then cracks in the pallid drama “Palmer.” The film, streaming on Apple TV+, opens with its stoic protagonist returning home to rural Louisiana after serving a 12-year prison sentence. Palmer (Justin Timberlake) hits the bar and carouses with buddies, but his townie itinerary changes when he finds himself saddled with caring for Sam (Ryder Allen), the cherubic child of a neglectful neighbor.

Sam enjoys playing with femininity; he tries on lipstick, adores dolls and, on Halloween, asks to dress up as a fairy princess. Though he’s bullied at school, Sam is an assured, easygoing kid. But to Palmer, a former high school quarterback, Sam “ain’t like other boys,” and will have a hard go at life unless he learns to abide by the macho agenda.

If “Palmer” had emerged as Sam’s story, this formulaic film might have found its footing following a mold-breaking character down familiar country roads. Instead, the director Fisher Stevens hews closely to Palmer, a tough guy with a sensitive side who punches people when he feels feelings. The women pose more tiresome clichés; they are either churchgoing or, in the case of the story’s love interest (Alisha Wainwright), an empathic vessel for Palmer’s pent-up emotion.

But the movie’s most frustrating revelation comes near the end, when it has the gall to correlate Sam’s nonconformity with Palmer’s outsider status. “I’m different, that’s for sure,” Palmer replies, when Sam asks if Palmer’s queer — a word he learned from his mom’s brutal boyfriend. That Palmer eventually embraces Sam as an ally in misfitdom is inevitable. So is the annoyance inspired by this prosaic masculine melodrama.

Rated R for machismo-mongering. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+.

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