Can there still be any justification for calling Justin Timberlake an under-the-radar movie talent? Sure, he has an Oscar nomination — but it’s for the “Trolls” soundtrack. Meanwhile, he’s been racking up solid acting credits for years (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Friends with Benefits,” “The Social Network”), yet every time he turns in another strong performance, people are newly surprised.
Fisher Stevens’ earnest small-town tale “Palmer” — streaming on Apple TV+ — is unlikely to earn Timberlake any awards, but it is another reminder that he’s got the potential for loftier dramatic ambitions.
What “Palmer” is, in every sense of the word, is decent. It’s familiar, and predictable, and a little bit hokey. But it’s also genuinely moving and surprisingly memorable, thanks to its two leads.
The first, of course, is Timberlake, as ex-felon Eddie Palmer. Palmer’s been in prison for 12 long years (his crime is just vague enough that we can continue rooting for him), and he’s ready to return to the Louisiana town where he was once a celebrated high-school quarterback. It’s not long, though, before reality hits. Since he has no money, he moves in with the grandmother (a nicely tart June Squibb) who raised him after his father died. And the only job he can get is as an apprentice janitor at an elementary school.
But the position does give him a chance to keep an eye on his neighbor Sam (Ryder Allen), a 7-year-old who lives in a trailer with his wayward mama, Shelly (Juno Temple, in a broad turn). When Shelly disappears with her bad-news boyfriend (Dean Winters, “30 Rock”), Sam is left on his own, so he and Palmer form their own family, which allows each to feel a little less alone.
The only real twist in Cheryl Guerriero’s methodical script is that Sam is gender-nonconforming, preferring lipstick and princesses in a community that is, as one character puts it, “all about church and football.” As it happens, most of the citizens are pretty chill about Sam’s differences. His teacher (Alisha Wainwright, “Shadowhunters”) is unwaveringly supportive, as are all but a few of his classmates and their parents. And who wouldn’t be? Sam is an angel child, cute and funny and confident and sweet in all the ways Hollywood adores.
Both Timberlake and Allen sell this sentimental material with all their hearts, drawing us into the fantasy that a grim reality can turn around with just a little luck and conviction. Timberlake, a Tennessee native, enlists an unusually authentic drawl, flashing it as sparingly as the touchingly taciturn Palmer expresses vulnerability. Charming newcomer Allen is a natural talent, skirting right up to the edge of precocity without ever tipping into child-actor insincerity.
Stevens also draws deftly on his experience as a documentarian (“Before the Flood”), shooting on location in Hammond, Louisiana, and eliciting strong work from cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) to create a visually-layered portrait of emotional and economic malaise.
As an actor himself, though, Stevens knows what matters most: We’ll follow a star anywhere; that’s the magic of movies. So more than anything, “Palmer” serves as a showcase for a pair of performers who deserve to be seen onscreen again soon.
“Palmer” premieres January 29 on AppleTV+.