(CNN)Off-screen drama shouldn’t obscure the on-screen merits of “Palmer,” a small movie that offers a solid showcase for Justin Timberlake. Reminiscent of “Sling Blade” in its themes and tone, the Apple TV+ film hinges on the unlikely bond between a man and a young boy, offering the former redemption and the latter the supportive figure he’s lacked.
Timberlake’s Eddie Palmer was a high-school football star, whose bad judgment landed him a 12-year prison sentence. Returning to his home town in Louisiana, he takes up residence with his grandma (June Squibb) and struggles to find work, finally landing a janitor’s job at the local school.
The town is “still all about church and football,” he’s reminded, which makes life even harder on the aforementioned boy, Sam (wonderfully played by Ryder Allen), a victim of constant bullying because of his nonconforming gender identity. Moreover, his addict mother (Juno Temple) abandons him, leaving the taciturn Palmer as his unlikely overseer, with a little help from the kid’s caring teacher (“Raising Dion’s” Alisha Wainwright).
Images of the married Timberlake holding hands with Wainwright caused a bit of a tabloid furor in 2019, which is either a promotional boon for such a modestly scaled movie, an unwelcome distraction or a little of both.
Setting those extracurricular concerns aside, “Palmer” derives a quiet strength from its performances and the narrative arc of the title character, who goes from snapping, “You know you’re a boy, right?” at Sam when he plays with dolls to becoming determined to protect him, even if that means making sacrifices and potentially endangering his newly gained freedom.
Timberlake has played dramatic roles before (see “The Social Network”), but this starring vehicle nevertheless feels like a step up in class and ambition, and he’s quite convincing as a guy with the hollowed-out look of someone haunted by regret, who had the future laid out for him — with a football scholarship to LSU — before derailing his life.
Directed by actor and documentarian Fisher Stevens, “Palmer” certainly doesn’t break any ground, but its simple story is sensitively told. As streaming services like Apple’s endeavor to stand out from the crowd, championing this kind of worthwhile little movie seems like as good a way as any to get some extra bang for their bucks.
“Palmer” premieres Jan. 29 on Apple TV+. It’s rated R.