For years, Eddie Palmer had been the biggest thing to hit his small, Southern hometown. He was quarterback for the high school football team, which made him a hero. He earned a full-ride scholarship to LSU, which made him a legend.
And then he almost killed a man and went to prison for a dozen years, which made him a scandal.
Eddie—Palmer, he likes to be called—is out now. He’s home, living in the same house he was raised in, with Grandma Viv, who was close to a mother to him. (His own mom ran out when Palmer was just about 5 or 6 years old.) Not the ideal place to get a fresh start, but it’s all he has. And it’s better than nothing.
But while the town still has the same look and is filled with mostly the same people (just 12 years older), Viv’s place looks a little different. An RV’s parked on the property, just a few steps away. A young woman named Shelly lives there with her elementary-aged son, Sam.
Viv has little use for the woman: She’s trouble. But Sam? He’s a darling boy. Why, sometimes, when Shelly vanishes for a spell, Sam moves in and sleeps on the couch. Viv gives Sam a place to eat and watch TV and play, of course, with his Barbie dolls. Sam gives Viv makeovers—brushing the old woman’s hair and suggesting new shades of lipstick. And maybe, when Viv isn’t around, the boy tries on a bit himself.
When Sam introduces Palmer to his dolls, Palmer’s at a loss.
“Boys don’t play with dolls,” he tells Sam.
But Sam knows that’s not true. “I’m a boy,” he explains, “and I do.”
Days stretch into weeks, and still no Shelly. Sam’s mom has never been gone this long before. No telling what shape she’ll be in when she comes back. If she comes back.
And then, suddenly and quietly, Grandma Viv is gone, too—passing in her sleep. It’s just Palmer now, living in a house he doesn’t own with a boy who isn’t his.
Palmer’s no father. He’s just a guy trying to restart his life and overcome his mistakes. He’s got his own issues to work on. How can he take on responsibility for another person?
But when Palmer’s told that Sam will likely be heading to the foster care system, Palmer hesitates: The system is a hard place for any child. But for a child like Sam? A child as different as Sam? He’ll be eaten alive.
Maybe Palmer can deal with the boy. Just until Shelly comes back. Surely she’ll come back.
True, Palmer has made plenty of mistakes in his life. But he’s paid for them, and he’s a better person now than he was 12 years ago. He faces all the challenges that come with being an ex-con with both courage and humility. But Sam brings out a side of Palmer that he never knew he had—that of a guardian, a big brother, even a father. “I haven’t felt like I was good at anything for a long time, until Sam,” he admits. “I know what it feels like to be left alone.”
We’ll get to Sam’s peculiarities in a bit, but let’s also acknowledge there’s a reason why Viv, Palmer and many others come to care for the boy so much. He’s honest to a fault—with himself and everyone else. He has a good sense of right and wrong, too. For instance: When Viv accuses Palmer of short-changing her after a trip to the grocery store, Palmer proves her wrong. The next night at dinner, Sam turns to Viv and says, “Miss Vivian, you never said you were sorry.” (Viv rectifies the mistake then and there.) He’s as guileless as kids come, and he shows the ability to be both loving and forgiving.
Sam and Palmer both have a good role model in Vivian. She welcomes Palmer back with an open heart, loads of encouragement and a few important rules. She gives Sam a steady home—something that Sam’s mom can’t provide. After she dies, people talk about what a good woman she was, and it’s absolutely true.
[Spoiler Warning] We should note that Sam’s mother truly loves her son, too, and she’d love to be a better mom for him. But in the end, Shelly loves him so much that she relinquishes her rights as a mother and puts Sam in the hands of Palmer, who’s proven to be a far better parent. It’s a great message that illustrates both the importance and beauty of adoption.
Vivian is a church-going woman, and she stipulates that as long as Palmer will be living in her house, he’ll be going to church with her every Sunday. They take Sam, too—whether Shelly’s around or not—and Sam seems to dig it. We see them all in a church service, singing a hymn. (After Viv dies, we don’t see much of the church, implying that Palmer’s not nearly as pious as his grandma. But he still sports a massive cross tattoo on one of his arms.)
At school, Sam draws a picture of a church (though a class bully purposefully destroys the picture—especially the church’s cross—with black paint). And when Palmer confesses to Sam that he misses his own dad (who died when Palmer was in high school), Sam says, “Miss Vivian missed him, too. But now she gets to see him!”
Vivian’s house shows plenty of signs of her faith: A cross hangs beside her front door. Another cross sits in Palmer’s room. A sign with the words “Faith and Love” hangs somewhere, too. She’s obviously buried in a Christian ceremony, and she winds up being very generous to the church in her will.
Someone says that the town hasn’t changed much since Palmer left: It’s still “all about church and football.” Shelly wears a cross around her neck. Vivian, Palmer and Sam all pray over dinner.
A song during the credits is Nathaniel Rateliff’s “Redemption,” which could be taken as either a purely secular ballad or (given its Christian imagery) something more spiritual. (Rateliff, incidentally, was raised in a devout Christian home but no longer identifies with the faith.)
Shortly after Palmer and Shelly meet, they have sex. It’s pretty explicit, too: We see most of them fully nude. And while the most critical parts are covered, we see both of their exposed rear ends along with the side of Shelly’s breast. The sex scene is accompanied by lots of noises and gyrations. The next morning, as Palmer exits Shelly’s trailer, he’s spotted by a horrified Grandma Viv. And as they and Sam drive off to church, Sam mentions that Palmer and his mom had a sleepover “without no pajamas or nothing.”
Palmer has sex with another woman, too. Darkness covers more of the scene, which carries more of a romantic than animalistic vibe. But it’s still very obvious what’s going on. Later, we see the two in their underwear and getting dressed.
Now to Sam. The boy—who appears to be perhaps in second grade or so—doesn’t seem to want to be a girl. But he does like traditionally girly things. He tells Palmer that “princesses are my favorite thing in the whole world,” and he loves the Penelope Flying Princess show.
“How many boys do you see on that show?” Palmer asks Sam.
“None,” Sam says.
“Then what does that tell you?”
“That I can be the first!” Sam says cheerily.
He has a love of pink and tea parties, too. Sam dances effeminately, and for Halloween, he decides he wants to dress up as a princess—not a prince, as Palmer suggests. One of the boys in his class makes fun of him when he shows up in his pink, winged dress, of course, triggering the whole classroom to laugh. “Samantha is wearing a girl’s costume!” He taunts. “She’s probably wearing panties!” Just then, though, Miss Maggie (the teacher) walks in dressed as the school’s male principal, complete with mustache. That’s the point of Halloween, she says—or for every day, she (rather confusingly) amends: You can dress and be whoever you want.
Palmer is puzzled and bothered by Sam’s effeminacy at first, but he gradually comes to accept it. At first, he encourages Sam to pursue more manly habits because he thinks that’s what Sam ought to do. But as time goes on, he suggests that he should keep his princess costume closeted to make life easier on Sam. “Kids are mean,” Palmer tells him, “especially when they see something they ain’t used to seeing.”
Sam is indeed treated roughly because of his feminine predilections. But it’s not just kids: We learn that when Sam and one of his girl friends were dressing up and putting on makeup, an adult came over for a beer, saw Sam and smeared his face and makeup all over Sam’s face and clothes.
Shelly’s boyfriend has little patience for Sam’s effeminate tendencies, and he throws away Sam’s princess lunchbox because he believes Shelly was raising him to be “queer.” “What does queer mean?” Sam asks Palmer. (Different, Palmer tells him.)
After Palmer sees Sam’s face and clothes smeared with makeup, and Sam tearily tells Palmer who did it, Palmer storms off and beats the guy up. It’s a vicious beating. And though the actual fist blows land out of camera shot, when the victim is pulled up off the floor, his face is a bloody mess. Palmer threatens another man, too—grabbing him by the collar and punching the wall right beside the man’s face. He finally walks away, his knuckles raw and bloody. (Later, Sam offers Palmer a tiny plastic bandage for those bleeding knuckles.)
When someone asks Palmer whether he’s planning to beat up everybody who makes fun of Sam, Palmer says, “Just the people over 30.” But when he sees a classmate of Sam push and pick on Sam on the school playground, Palmer (who works as a janitor) comes over and grabs the boy by the arm.
“You touch that boy again, I’m gonna break your arm,” Palmer says, and the boy runs away.
Palmer was sent to prison because he nearly killed a man: He and some friends had broken into a house looking for money for drugs, and the owner came out with a gun. “I nearly beat him to death,” Palmer admits.
Shelly’s boyfriend seems very angry. And while I don’t think we see him hit either Shelly or Sam, he sure would strike someone as likely being physically abusive. (He’s definitely verbally abusive to both.) Palmer attacks someone else. Kids push. Palmer tells Sam that sometimes you have to stand up for yourself and fight. Sam physically lashes out at a police officer.
More than 30 f-words (sometimes heard at a distance) and 15 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “d–k,” “f-ggot” (from a young boy) and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused about 10 times, most of them with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused about seven times.
Shelly clearly has a drug problem, and it’s clearly interfering with her ability to be a good mom. We don’t see her use, but we do see some telltale signs of drug use around her trailer, and in some scenes she’s clearly stoned out of her mind.
She and Palmer both smoke cigarettes. Palmer and his pals spend time at a local bar, and one of Palmer’s friends gets pretty drunk there. He begins harassing another patron before Palmer pulls him away for a game of billiards. Palmer begins the movie as a relatively heavy drinker, as well—suffering from what appears to be a hangover. After a particularly dispiriting day, he seems inclined to turn back toward the bottle, but instead he walks out of the bar, the alcoholic drink still on the counter and the money to pay for it under the glass.
We learn that Palmer suffered a devastating injury at LSU, which ended both his football aspirations and his full-ride scholarship. Palmer started “doing pills,” perhaps an addiction that began during his recovery, but he admits that he progressed to doing “other things,” too.
Sam takes a bath after Palmer tells him that he stinks. (He wants Palmer to help him out of the tub, but Palmer just averts his eyes and hands him a towel instead.)
We learn that Palmer protected some of his friends 12 years ago who were also a part of the robbery that sent Palmer to prison. He suggests to one that he might not be so willing to keep that secret now.
Had Palmer not embraced so much R-rated content, Palmer would’ve been a difficult movie to parse.
On one hand, you’ve got some really strong messages about faith and love and redemption and even adoption. We see a man who is trying his hardest to turn his life around, and he finds help in the guise of a little boy who desperately needs a father figure.
Those positive messages are complicated, of course, by the little boy’s love of pink and princesses and very girly things, and many a viewer would likely be discomfited by the movie’s unconditional embrace of Sam’s effeminacy and rejection of gender norms.
But even this is complicated, as Focus on the Family has spoken at length about. According to Focus, yes, Sam’s habits are concerning. But the article’s author warns that “gender non-conformity can also be a mechanism for coping with trauma.” And Sam’s home life, of course, is filled with non-stop trauma.
Then there’s the movie’s relatively positive portrayal of Christianity here. Many movies, like the recent Uncle Frank, invariably turn Christians into bigots and bad guys. But here, Sam’s most staunch early protector is a devout Christian, and because of her, Sam loves church, too.
But whether or not Sam needs just love and attention, serious correction or a little of both is beside the point, perhaps. Not when we’ve still got so many other problems to deal with.
Palmer creates this complex family story and slathers on a bevy of R-rated content on top of it: Graphic sex scenes. Brutal beatings. A host of bad words. Vivian is shocked when she sees Palmer slither out of Shelly’s trailer one morning, and discerning viewers should be shocked by much of what they see here.
As I said, if Palmer could’ve kept its nose cleaner, it this would’ve been a harder movie to review. As it is, we can easily suggest a hard pass.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.