starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb
written by Cheryl Guerrero
directed by Fisher Stevens
starring Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Maddie Ziegler, Hector Elizondo
screenplay by Sia & Dallas Clayton
directed by Sia
by Walter Chaw I feel like I've seen Fisher Stevens's well-intentioned Palmer dozens of times in the last three months alone. This version takes a few half-hearted stabs at social relevance with a heartfully-plucked acoustic guitar on the soundtrack but is finally nothing more than Justin Timberlake's latest shot at movie stardom. He's going deep as Palmer, fresh out of prison with a gruff attitude and a neckbeard denoting his impoverished status, reminding largely that his best role isn't the one where he plays a guy married to Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, but the one where he lip-syncs The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" in Southland Tales. The familiar movements: Palmer has to get laid, get a job, and become the guardian to a moppet, who saves him. He's got a hard shell, that Palmer, though the hint of a grin halfway through as he's driving his catalyst-towards-redemption to school hints that underneath his hard shell, there's a big ol' softy. The twist is that the moppet is non-gender-conforming Sam (Ryder Allen), who likes to wear pink, put barrettes in his hair, and have tea parties with the girls in his class. He also hates football but lives in the south, and Palmer used to be a bigshot high-school football player. Man, what a conundrum in which Palmer's found himself. A dadgum conundrum's what it is.
Palmer is terrible, it's true, but in a bland way that makes it more innocuous than offensive. I do wonder about choices like having Vampire Weekend play under a bowling montage during Palmer's date with pretty teach Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), who has her own sad story. It's a strange pick for a film whose milieu is more suited to honkytonk or a new-Christian/country ballad, and I wonder if the choice of band isn't some sop to whatever thirty-something teenyboppers have tuned in for the JT of this spectacle. I was braced for an exploration of intolerance of Palmer and Maggie's interracial dalliance, but Palmer draws the line at being too socially relevant, I guess. Palmer may occasionally threaten to deviate from the major beats of its overfamiliarity, yet somehow it never does. (As we're about to see with Sia's take on the same material: be careful what you wish for.) That's why although Sam has been abandoned, his mom, Shelly (Juno Temple), an addict who vanishes regularly, is destined to return. That means that right when Palmer finds his smile some, we know she's gonna provide a third-act conflict. And, boy, there's a lot of acting when she does, presumably to make up for JT's stolid lack of appreciable histrionics. Oh, and he'll probably be beset by financial stuff and yell at Sam and then have to make it up to them and relapse or something, and his new girlfriend will leave and stuff. You know how it goes. I don't even know why I'm bothering to tell you. The question becomes not will the inevitable happen, but will it be serio-tragic enough to tug at the heartstrings when it does.
Palmer isn't bad, just tedious. It's serviceable and adequate, especially if you regard it as a catharsis machine working at half-capacity. The movie wants very much to be liked, and so it has Palmer cathartically threaten to break a little kid's arm for bullying Sam and then cathartically beat the shit out of some adult idiot who bullies Sam because there maybe isn't enough of a release in Palmer terrorizing a child. Lizard-brain gratification without real-world reckoning, in other words. And that's fine. Yes, for a while Palmer threatens to become Sling Blade. Palmer isn't really about anything, though, except mashing that uplift tingle button, earned or not. It's about passionate speeches and noble gestures, not the childcare system or its failures, not prison as a reform opportunity, not the way society fails the poor and the different, not even whether guys with hair-trigger tempers and a history of violence who seem not to have made a whole lot of progress on those fronts make for good boyfriends and legal guardians of small children. With a "The End" at the end, Palmer announces itself, as it has all along, as what it is: a fairytale. How much you like it will depend on how much you want to hear this one again.
Sia's Music, too, is a fairytale (the same one, as it happens), coloured by the delusions of grandeur nursed by a megalomania unique to fabulously wealthy and white magical thinking that makes people living in a bubble, surrounded by sycophantic employees, believe they are philanthropists, experts, saints. It's not that far off from Trump suggesting we treat COVID-19 by letting sunshine into the body and injecting bleach as a chaser. A hell of a cocktail, wealth and cults of personality. Music is a compendium of horrifying, half-cooked ideas sprung from bottomless privilege and a lack of introspection. Sia, because she is Sia, has decided she cares about autism, and so she has turned her beneficent gaze and bounteous creative gifts upon the issue. By bestowing her attention upon it, Sia shall heal it with her perfect perspective. Autism is beautiful, Sia says, and people with autism on the inside are as conventionally acceptable--exceptional, even--as Sia is on the outside. Sia is to autism as Elon Musk is to Mars. They have the wealth to get there but neither the empathy nor the intelligence to survive once they arrive. Everything is fine in Sia's world, you see, and like the wealthy wife in Parasite, the catastrophic storm that has almost killed her servants in a flood of sewage is just a reason to have a huge party to turn that frown upside-down. Music is the child of splendid isolation; if you didn't think Get Out was a documentary about the deadly solipsism of rich, white liberals, you weren't paying attention.
Music is the shit-for-brains version of Palmer. In this iteration, the guardian is a congenital fuck-up drug addict, dealer, and cheap sex-er named Zu (Kate Hudson), who's Music's sister and was also recently paroled. Don't worry, Zu has a heart of gold--but, like Palmer, it's only through the agency of an unconventional child that she discovers her self-worth. This movie is not about Music, you see, it's about Zu. White Zu, who fucked up her privilege but good and is now using it to earn the happy ending she can only earn through being nice to another human being. It's good to have unconventional children to teach bad adults how to be good adults, isn't it. Almost like they're not really meant to be people with their own needs and complexities, but rather objects to gratify the "altruism" of the "normals." Like Palmer, Zu has an interracial love interest in super-duper magic neighbour Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who, echoing Palmer's Maggie, is a teacher--a boxing coach at the local gym for disadvantaged youth. Ebo has a dead brother who was autistic. This is how Ebo knows that the best way to quiet Music's occasional tantrums is to "restrain" her with his weight. He calls this "smother with love" or some happy horseshit, but it looks like attempted murder to me, and I wondered as he was doing this if this is how his brother died. Ebo seems to know it doesn't look good, either, because later in a park he tells Zu that Zu has to crush Music under her weight because it wouldn't do for Ebo to do that to Music in public. Sia has apologized for pushing this genuinely dangerous practice and promised to remove these scenes from the finished product. Well, I saw them.
Ziegler, who again was 14 at the time of filming and should not be blamed, credits watching YouTube videos about autistic children having meltdowns as research for her performance. Sia says she originally cast an autistic actor as Music but that the actor left because she found the task to be too "disturbing." Most people who are not Sia in that moment would take serious stock of what they're on about, yet Sia took the neurodivergent artist she hired tapping out of the project as another challenge she needed to overcome. She did not listen and she did not learn. Instead, she exercised the divine right of pop queens to continue as planned--but with a neurotypical actress whom she has, by the way, been grooming as a protege and emotional expression puppet since Ziegler was 11 years old. Edgar Bergen ain't got nothin' on Sia.
I don't think I'm on the spectrum, certainly not to the degree Music is burlesquing, and the autistic community doesn't need me to speak for them. They have been eloquent in their disdain for the film, and I've learned a great deal through their writing. If there's something good to come from Music, it's that it forced me into a conversation I can otherwise easily avoid. I still catch myself using ableist language on occasion; I have a huge blind spot there. Calamitous cultural moments like this--validated by Music's two major Golden Globe nominations--are only useful for providing these moments of reckoning for people like me who think they're on the right side of things, but often don't know what they're talking about.
I will say that as an Asian-American, I'm offended by Sia's inexplicable inclusion of an evil Chinese dad (Wang Luoyong (王洛勇)) who brutally abuses his BIPOC son, Felix (Beto Cavillo), and represents the absolute worst stereotypes of Chinese parentage there could possibly be. Why is there a Chinese dry-cleaning Fu Manchu in this movie? (And I'm telling you right now that the actual Chinese dad wants his kid to go to college and study whenever he's not pressing shirts.) I have not one fucking idea. Maybe because in the course of Sia ticking off the "Toxic Masculinity" box on her "I'm very sensitive to the Other" checklist, her racism pointed her immediately in the direction of Chinese parenting. Alas, not unlike people with autism or the case of little Sam's "difference" from Palmer, being Chinese is a fact of my birth that I do not see as a disability and, more, have begun to take as a point of pride and a lucky miss that I am not a fabulously wealthy white woman who needs to use what I perceive to be the imperfections of other peoples to ennoble my privilege somehow. Which is my long-winded way of telling Sia to go fuck herself.
The tension of Music, to its credit, is not whether Zu will pull it together enough to become a good "mommy" to Music and a good girlfriend to Ebo, but when Music will drop another expressionistic music video, the better to explain the emotions and motivations of its characters. For the record, the characters spend most of their time articulating their feelings and rationalizing their behaviour, so it's unclear what the real function of these interludes is except as a way to gratify Sia's ego. I thought a time or two of Beyonce's Lemonade and the skillful way it wove its story through the album and back again to tell a narrative of struggle and empowerment. Ditto Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer. By the end, when Ebo sits down at a piano and Zu prepares to sing a heartfelt song of connection to heal a tense relationship between Eb--gah, it doesn't matter. I'm sorry I brought it up. By the end, when there's a stage and Ebo starts to play and then Music finds her voice to sing, I was mostly reminded of the "Puttin' on the Ritz" number in Young Frankenstein where our good doctor demonstrates to a skeptical medical community how he has civilized his monster. Such is the power of Sia's music, you see, to express the true-true buried in the heart of every unfortunate lacking a voice. Released in such proximity to Sound of Metal, the astonishing insensitivity of Music seems all the more glaring.
I liked Sia quite a bit for a long time, you know. I was taken by the vulnerability she showed while discussing her substance abuse and mental-illness journey and heard it in the self-loathing-into-triumph of her anthemic songs. "Breathe Me" as the crescendo to the series finale of "Six Feet Under" remains the quintessential example of how Sia's music can function the way I think it's meant to in Music. One of her tunes decorates, and does so beautifully, the end credits of The Neon Demon. As a songwriter, producer, and performer, her music for a long time was big, celebratory, a literate expression of the best kind of human fragility. She's a star, a role model for underrepresented people, for a reason. But she's been reading her press for too long, it appears, and Music is a Glitter-esque monument to an artist in freefall now reaching terminal velocity. She's powerful enough not to listen. She can take this avalanche of hurt and confusion delivered to her doorstep by the community she's exploited to burnish her temple to herself, and dismiss it as the rumblings of peons too stupid to understand the enormity of her generous wisdom. Or she can humble herself, like she did when she addressed her alcoholism and addiction to painkillers in the most public of ways. She's demonstrated in the past her capacity for humility. Failing that, there's room for her on that glacier of disappointing people you used to love right next to J.K. Rowling and Morrissey.