By Laurie Coker

Rating: A-

Justin Timberlake has talent and in Palmer, his latest dramatic venture, he creates a brilliant blend of damaged, hardened, and compassionate. Director Fisher Steven brings out the best in his cast in the story of mistakes, redemption, acceptance, and love. Written by Cheryl Guerriero, Palmer draws up rich characters in a humanistic, heartfelt, and sometimes shocking story, and Fisher and his impressive cast rise above the blatant predictability.

Palmer, played with perfect precision by Timberlake is an ex-con and former small-town high school football star.  After a decade in prison for a beating up a man during a home burglary, he moves in with the grandma (June Squibb) who raised him, eventually finds a job as a grade school custodian, and little by little is drawn into the life of Sam (Ryder Allen), a kid living in a doublewide adjacent to Granny’s place. Sam’s mom is a junkie, who disappears for months at a time, leaving Sam in the care of the old woman. While resistant at first, Palmer bonds with the boy. Sam, however, challenges Palmer with his quirkiness – he doesn’t seem to know he’s a boy, wearing hair berets, shorts, cowboy boots and fairy princess t-shirts.

Palmer is a far softer soul than he was when he violently beat a man and understands the weight of his mistakes. For all his gruff manliness, Palmer seems an unlikely pseudo-parent to a special child like Sam. The bond between actors and their characters seeps from the screen ripping into and pulling on the heart. Timberlake delivers perhaps the richest and most deeply defined performance of his career and Allen brings on all the emotions evoked by an adorable shelter puppy. It’s a beautiful pairing. While they are polar opposites, the match seems remarkable and works because of this pair of actors.

Palmer’s characters keep the predictable storyline from ever becoming dull and Stevens captures the nuances necessary to offer a moral message without forcefully making the issue of transgender the focal point. Stevens balances a variety of matters by peering into the deeper, darker ills of parenting, abuse, child welfare, and redemption from youthful indiscretions. Palmer earns an A- in the grade book. Timberlake deserves nods for his portrayal.

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