Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Charles B. Wessler, John Penotti, Charlie Corwin and Daniel Nadler   Director: Fisher Stevens   Screenplay: Cheryl Guerriero   Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb, Lance E. Nichols, Stephen Louis Grush, Jesse C. Boyd, J.D. Evermore, Wynn Everett, Charmin Lee, Carson Minniear and Dean Winters   Distributor: Apple+

Grade: C

Good intentions are smothered in a lot of treacle in Fisher Stevens’ well-meaning but manipulative drama about an ex-con who becomes the champion of a gender-noncomforming young boy in a conservative Louisiana town. “Palmer” is undoubtedly sincere, but it tells a potentially moving story with too heavy a hand, diluting its strength in the process. 

Justin Timberlake, fitted out with a beard, plays the title character Eddie Palmer. He returns from a stint in prison to the home of his loving grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who welcomes him with open arms.  He apparently grew up with her: there’s no mention of his parents, and she has his old room ready. 

Eddie’s also received enthusiastically by his old pals, including drunken, boorish Daryl (Stephen Louis Grush) and now-deputy Coles (Jesse C. Boyd), with whom he shares beers at the local bar.  There he also encounters Shelly (Juno Temple), a drug addict who lives in a trailer beside Vivian’s house, and has a one-night stand with her.

Shelly has an eight-year old son named Sam (Ryder Allen) whom she obviously loves but is unable to care for.  She often goes off on binges with her skuzzy boyfriend Jerry (Dean Winters), leaving the boy behind, and on those occasions Vivian happily takes care of him.  It’s in the middle of one such stay that Vivian suddenly dies, leaving Eddie to decide what to do with Sam.  Though the kid’s effeminate ways surprise—and unnerve—him (at one point he asks the kid, who loves TV shows about princesses and plays with dolls, whether he knows he’s a boy)—he becomes his unofficial guardian.

By this time Eddie’s gotten a job as a janitor at the local elementary school, working under laconic but supportive Sibs (Jesse C. Boyd) and the more unsure Principal Forbes (J,D. Evermore).  Since Sam’s enrolled there in the class of sweet, kindly Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), he can keep tabs on how the boy’s bullied by Daryl’s son Toby (Carson Minniear).  When he takes Sam to a high school football game—he was the star quarterback years before—he sees Daryl bully him too, especially over the kid’s fascination not with the players but the cheerleaders.  Still, the boy finds a supporter in Coles’s wife Lucille (Wynn Everett), who invites him over for playdates with her daughter, where they have tea parties.  In fact, apart from Daryl and his son, most in the town seem to like and accept Sam for who he is, just as Vivian did and Eddie does.

But a crisis occurs when Shelly and Jerry show up to reclaim the boy.  At this point “Palmer” turns into an extremely implausible child-custody story, with Eddie—helped by Maggie, the two now being an item—trying to convince a skeptical judge (Charmin Lee) to appoint Eddie as Sam’s permanent guardian after the youngster’s been removed from his mother’s care by CPS.  Naturally Shelly objects.

The script presumes that viewers will be entirely on Eddie’s side, since Shelly is so obviously unfit a mother.  But it never asks us to consider Eddie’s fitness.  He is, after all, still on parole—something that state law considers an insuperable impediment—and when Eddie finally reveals to Maggie why he went to prison, it might cause one to wonder whether he should get custody, even though it presents his history in as positive a light as possible (injured while playing ball in college, he came home, fell into drugs and alcohol abuse and nearly beat a man to death while robbing his house—though he wasn’t alone, he took the blame for the others). 

Eddie’s trying to go straight now, of course, but while there’s no sign of drugs, he certainly still drinks plenty, and from the way he deals with Toby, Jerry and especially Daryl, he still has anger issues, and his advice to Sam about fighting back against bullies indicates that he might not be the best father figure to the kid, though he’s certainly better than the abusive Jerry.  Nor is the way he tries to deal with Shelly particularly noble.  You might appreciate Eddie’s unlikely ability to empathize with Sam, who clearly comes to dote on him, but the picture doesn’t consider his flaws deeply enough to make a clear-cut case.

Nor does Timberlake give him much nuance.  He’s committed to the part, but is hardly the most charismatic or communicative of actors, though he does suggest the simmering anger- beneath Eddie’s controlled, placid exterior (even if that points once more to the issue of whether the state would consider him great guardian material).  Temple throws herself histrionically into her unsympathetic role, both Wainwright and Squibb are extremely likable though one-dimensional, and Grush and Winters make utterly detestable villains.  But the best thing about the movie, acting-wise, is certainly Allen, who may be amateurish at times but wins you over with his engagingly unfettered turn.  All benefit from Stevens’ experience in front of the camera; he knows what to ask for and gets it from the whole cast, even if subtlety is not his strong suit.

Technically the movie is okay; the rural small-town ambience is well captured by production designer Happy Massee, and Tobias A. Schliessler’s cinematography is unpretentiously plain.  Though Geoffrey Richman’s editing lacks smoothness, it never gets in the way, nor does Tamar-kali’s score.

Except for a bit of skin in the sole scene between Timberlake and Temple, and an occasional bout of rough language, “Palmer” could be a nice family movie on a basic cable station.  But it’s less imaginative, and touching, a treatment of this subject than Anna Kerrigan’s recent “Cowboys.”