“I had a change of heart because of a personal experience,” Senator Rob Portman said in 2013 when he announced that his coming out son was causing a change in his attitude towards marriage equality. For the previous Congress, the Senator received a 0 from the human rights campaign scorecard for supporting LGBTQ rights in Congress. Perhaps this is an extreme example, but it points to a bigger problem. Personal exposure to marginalized communities can help humanize them, but this acceptance is not enough to break down the systems of oppression and discrimination that hold them down.
However, this lie continues to spread like wildfire in the cinema. This harmful misrepresentation of reality is not true when it comes to racism, despite everything “Drive Miss Daisy” and “Green Book” Maybe we want to believe. It’s also not true when it comes to homophobia as the journey from Justin TimberlakeTitle character in Fisher Stevens’ “Palmer” might suggest. A similar undercurrent runs through the upcoming version “Joe Bell” Another film starring a musician turned actor, a macho guy softened by the testimony of the horrors forced upon the strange youth. These films are only interested in these bullied characters in that the gradual journey of the male protagonist can divert their prejudices.
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Eddie Palmer returns from prison and returns to Louisiana to rebuild his life and reputation. That prospect is on its own in a city that remembers its crime all too well, a burden that shows in every glance at Timberlake’s desperation. But the death of Palmer’s magnanimous grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), leaves him with another responsibility that proves to be challenging and restorative.
Vivian had looked after a neighboring 7-year-old Cherubic, the sexually offensive Sam (Ryder Allen) than his meth addicted mother Shelly (Juno temple) has a habit of disappearing. Palmer is all too familiar with the dangers of falling into the system. He takes pity on Sam and agrees to act as temporary steward. A man who grew up and doesn’t know his own father must now take on the role of a substitute for a tyke who would have no one else in his life.
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Palmer’s first instinct is always to protect Sam from abuse by narrow-minded classmates by suggesting that it be aggravated. Either give up a traditionally male identity or push back the bullies. But over time, Sam’s innocent love for all things awakens Princess childlike compassion in Palmer. This softening of his heart turns his passive tolerance into an active acceptance of who Sam is. Given the sense of comfort that Allen’s performance emanates, Palmer would have to be made of stone not to melt.
Sam’s influence on Palmer opens up the opportunity for romance with his teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), a development that pretty much indicates the priorities of the film. Fisher Stevens doesn’t seem to have great ambitions for what this one story is, but that’s no reason to let it off the hook. “Palmer” is little more than an entry-level ally celebration that may have passed in 2013 but runs out of space in 2021. A character like Timberlake uses his platform to get this message across to his fans, some of which may need to be brought to light. However, we should congratulate narratives and characters who take their audience on a journey that culminates in the recognition of prejudices and takes the most preparatory steps to correct them.
It’s not that the film doesn’t understand what it looks like to be an accomplice. Maggie knows that Sam is planning to dress up as a princess for Halloween and in solidarity puts on the costume of the male headmaster to demonstrate the performative nature of the sex. This graceful moment makes for a welcome burst of radicalism in a film that too often excuses good intentions as its own reward. A better future for Sam and children who are just trying to live their truth goes beyond just marching arm in arm in some sort of Pride parade. It requires alignment with structural and cultural problems that non-heteronormative young people continue to suppress at their roots.
Gender-specific children deserve better than seeing that their existence is limited to promoting straight white men’s travel, as Sam does in “Palmer”. Your media appearances should be both abundant and focused. These children deserve attention themselves, not just as a complement to another’s path to salvation.
Then again, maybe for the better that “Palmer” isn’t trying to be that movie for Sam. When Cheryl GuerrieroThe script comes close to other hot button topics like incarceration and addiction. It just skims the surface to capture and understand. The film has nothing to say about Palmer’s borderline alcoholism (not as if that condition ever ruined a family), and its challenges as a former prisoner are little more than barriers to action. The less that can be said about Shelly’s dead drug use of a mother, the better. No amount of Juno Temple’s humanizing spark could save her character from a jumble of misguided tropes.
Shelly’s reappearance in the third act of the film derails almost the entire film, as her custody turns “Palmer” into a low rent “Kramer versus Kramer.” Their presence injects vitriol and poison into a film, which is best when kept in a reserved, kind state. This good mood at least makes for a pleasant company, even if they won’t change the world. We should expect more from movies, but in the meantime, we can at least settle for that. [C-]
Palmer arrives on Apple TV + on January 29th.