“Palmer” (2021)–Second Chances

In this little sleeper of a movie, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is released from prison after serving twelve years for attempted murder in a robbery gone wrong.  With nowhere to live but at his beloved grandmother’s (June Squibb of Nebraska), Palmer soon is forced to reexamine his life and,  in the process of learning to accept his past, finds ways of expressing his feelings.  A bullied young non-binary child, Sam  (Ryder Allen), lives with his drug addicted mother, Shelly (Juno Temple),  in a trailer on the grandmother’s property.  Soon they enter Palmer’s life in a major, life-transforming way.

Palmer is a macho character, the badass who reflexively expressed himself with his fists in his pre-prison past.  Yet, Sam–who is bullied repeatedly for his love of princesses, tiaras, and dolls–sits down with Palmer and expresses his joy at being who he is. Both Sam and Palmer are allowed to be painfully vulnerable in these scenes.  Full, absolute, acceptance is the overriding theme and heart of Palmer. There’s no denying who you are and no reason to try to change.

Palmer is a poignant, unexpected winner.  It is  very difficult to develop the character of a little boy who just doesn’t happen to conform to normative male traits.  Sam has personal dreams that don’t meet others’ expectations and he wants to be fine with that.  The quiet, understated performance by Justin Timberlake as the tight-lipped small-town miscreant– to whom no one wants to give a second chance to–is his  finest yet. And the angel-faced Ryder Allen is  cast so perfectly  that this viewer forgot, at times, that he was acting.  Check this one out!

Note:  Compare Palmer to Peanut Butter Falcon starring Shia LaBoeuf, on a similar theme.  Both are good films  but I would choose Palmer  if you have only time or interest in watching one portrayal of a millennial lost soul and his friendship with a young boy.

Availability:  Apple TV+

“Nebraska” –A Husky Tale in the Cornhusker State

Nebraska

In Alexander Payne’s Academy Award-nominated black-and-white drama, we see the story of a parent with unfulfilled dreams who has damaged adult children who care deeply but are also deeply wounded. A companion piece to “August: Osage County” (see my review January 29, 2014).

The film opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in the performance of his career!)  wandering the streets of  Billings, Montana.   Woody’s son, David (Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame) is called by the police to pick up his septuagenarian father who wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he believes he has won.  The all-too-common  mail scam  seems to be discounted by Woody who naively believes his luck has changed. Kate (the scene-stealing June Squibb) berates her husband as a fool for  insisting on collecting the money. David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo), a local news anchor, discuss putting Woody in a retirement home,  hinting of dementia or senility.  David reluctantly decides to drive his father to Lincoln, much to Kate’s and his brother’s dismay.  Perhaps he can unlock some of the secrets of his father’s past and grow closer to him on the road.

“Nebraska” is stark and lonely: an austere and  bleak landscape of place and mind, where life doesn’t seem to change and dreams remain unfulfilled.  Family dynamics locked into roles of self-deception echo and evoke “August”,   this time between father and sons, not mother and daughters.

The  brutally frank portrayal of aging and unhealed wounds are  at times comical and always heart-breaking.  Forte, best known as a zany comic actor,  makes an impressively restrained dramatic debut as a man who longs to connect yet is reflexively depressed. Odenkirk, as Ross, evolves in surprising and sympathetic ways as a witness to both his brother and father’s decline.

Ultimately, however,  this is Bruce Dern’s film.    His energy is still  there, only now beneath the surface:  dissipated, his rage turned inward, his hearing aid turned up a little to hear the voices inside his own head.