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Heartfelt tale: Justin Timberlake at his best as felon-turned-father figure in ‘Palmer’

Justin Timberlake and Ryder Allen in a scene from “Palmer.” (Courtesy of Apple)

Singer-songwriter-producer-etc. Justin Timberlake has been so famous and so ubiquitous and so likable for so long it’s easy to forget he has legit acting chops, but all you have to do is spin through films such as “The Social Network” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Alpha Dog” to be reminded of Timberlake’s talents. And in the saccharine but emotionally impactful “Palmer,” Timberlake gives one of the best performances of his career as an ex-con who returns to his hometown in Louisiana and tries to pick up the pieces.

This is one of those heart-tuggers where it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that everything will eventually work out for the best in tidy fashion. We know we’re being manipulated from time to time, but the messaging is so earnest and the performances are so heartfelt we’re willing to go with it. Call it a comfort movie.

With the Louisiana location shoots adding authenticity to this relatively simple tale, Timberlake plays Eddie Palmer, a onetime high school football star who was headed to LSU on a full scholarship when he threw it all away in a violent confrontation one night and wound up serving a lengthy prison sentence. Now Palmer is coming home to the small town of Sylvain, Louisiana, where everybody knows him and hardly anybody is happy to see him again, although his old running mates are all smiles and beers, at least to his face.

Juno Temple in a scene from “Palmer.” (Courtesy of Apple)

Palmer moves in with his crusty old wisecracking movie grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb, effortlessly knocking it out of the park), and lands a job as a janitor at the local elementary school. All things considered, Palmer is relatively content – and of course that’s when Vivian checks out and Palmer finds himself as the only adult in the life of an adolescent boy named Sam (Ryder Allen), who lives in the trailer next to Vivian’s house and is on his own after his drug addict mother, Shelly (Juno Temple), does one of her frequent disappearing acts.

Sam is a bright, funny, instantly likable kid, but Palmer is perplexed by the boy, who likes to put on makeup and wear barrettes, and loves to talk about how princesses are his favorite thing in the whole wide world. At one point, Palmer says, “You know you’re a boy, right?” but he doesn’t try to change Sam; he just does his awkward, fumbling best to get the kid to school and watch over him until his mother returns. Meanwhile, Palmer strikes up a friendship and maybe more with a sweet and lovely teacher named Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), who helps him with Sam. The three become a family of sorts, but we know Shelly will eventually return, and even though she’s a mess and a horrible mother, who’s going to award custody to a felon who isn’t even related to the boy?

Director Fisher Stevens (working from a finely constructed screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero) delivers a solidly built, well-paced story that feels true to the locale and the characters. Juno Temple takes what could have been a caricature villain role and does something special with the part; we’re appalled by Shelly, but we can see the pain of her addiction, and we know nobody could hurt her more than she hurts herself. Young Ryder Allen is amazingly good at playing Sam, whose spirit and goodness will break your heart.

And then there’s the actor who carries the day as Eddie Palmer. Guy by the name of Timberlake. He’s really good.

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