It’s all right there in the title. The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Or at least, it should be.
Peter Hedges new fable about parents and children, frustrated wishes and surprising miracles is never really odd enough, nor is it particularly reflective of anything considered real life. I expected fantasy in a film that involves a ten year-old boy literally springing from the Earth—he’s still got circlets of green leaves growing from his ankle—but Timothy strays too far outside the reasonable parameters of dramatic fiction. It’s trying too hard to be sweet, and as it goes in for that big, therapeutic, final hug it nearly smothers you. Up to a point though, the film is pretty good for what it is.
At first glance, Green is an unusual choice for director Peter Hedges, who has built a career out of writing carefully considered and emotionally resonant dramedys like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy and his own delightful directing efforts, Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life. The story has all the basic traits of a classic Disney effort, with a special and innocent child teaching a set of addled adults lessons about the wonder of living life, frustrated parents finally realizing a dream of family, and outcasts making each other stronger through friendship. Green goes above and beyond and even finds some time for a subplot where the town pencil factory must be saved from closing down. None of this, or the straightforward and nakedly sentimental tone of Green, feel like the usual nuance and realism of Hedges.
And yet, most of what actually works in Timothy Green are the touches of real human feeling, sprinkled amidst contrived ‘magic’ that feels ported in from a Hallmark film. These more sincere moments come directly from Hedges, and they add a level of honest sweetness—and a little sadness—that goes a long way to making the movie endearing. Until it finally overeggs the pudding with just too many characters and contrivances, Green does remind of Disney in solid live-action family mode, and that’s not a bad thing.
Hedges and his actors bring a grounded, amiable enthusiasm to what is initially a simple story. A barren couple who can’t adopt write down their wishes for a child and bury it in the yard, and after a fearsome rainstorm, they find a young boy who has climbed right out of the Earth itself. Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner play Jim and Cindy Green, the couple whose fervent hope has seemingly birthed Timothy, the strange child who calls them mom and dad and has leaves on his person, and who stands sometimes in the front yard like a tree, with his hands outstretched towards the sun. Edgerton and Garner make us believe the heartache and the hope and the astounded joy that comes for the Greens, as they must adapt and adopt a child and face the reality of their long-frustrated yearning.
Garner brings much energy and maternal warmth to her role, and she’s quirky and funny enough to dodge many of the more blatant heart-tuggers that the script throws at her. Edgerton has a line in blue-collar sincerity and I was not a bit surprised that he worked at the pencil factory, or struggled against a negative-nelly boss (Ron Livingston), or was ready to save the factory when the time comes. David Morse is very effective as Edgerton’s distant father, and it’s always good to see the likes of Dianne Weist and M Emmet Walsh and Lois Smith in a film’s cast. Common is good too as the soccer coach, and you can see you a few glances of the talent he will bring to this September’s Luv.
The hardest role to pull off is Timothy, who is really a symbol that also happens to be a person; he represents a parent’s idealism and the hope that comes with a new generation, while embodying simultaneously a contradiction of old-fashioned goodness and spirited non-comformism. It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to play this, let alone an 11 year-old actor. CJ Adams starts down the prickly, precocious path set by Haley Joel-Osment and Freddie Highmore but I admired his pluck and his refusal to be anything other than a kid, even when the story projects him as an walking fortune-cookie for the adults. His chemistry with his on-screen parents and with the lovely Odeya Rush, a teenager who befriends Timothy. Rush’s Joni Jerome sticks out as a script concoction, but the young actress sells her as a completely believable presence, exactly the kind of spirit that would adore a weird kid who had plants growing out of his legs.
Where all of these characters lead is to a story that strains the film’s identity as fable; the triumphs and hardships of Timothy don’t feel like they are truly larger-than-life or particularly resonant as a deeper truth, and mostly they feel like the required hurdles that a hero must overcome in order to be ‘special’. In these scenes, the film goes on autopilot and leans too much upon melodrama and mushy, candy-coated uplift.
Any sense of plausibility ceases, and we are left to wonder why the Greens aren’t more enamored and bewitched by Timothy and his supernatural origins, and why no one seems surprised that the obviously lonely couple who can’t have kids suddenly possess an 11 year old out of the blue. In a film more in-tune with its emotional identity—like the deeply underrated Dan in Real Life was—we might overlook such fairy-tale logic, but once Green settles down for its by-the-numbers resolution, our attention is on its flaws. Which is honestly a shame, because just like the mystifyingly strange and sappy boy at its heart, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is likable, kind and gentle. This could have been a great family film, instead it’s mostly good but very flawed. I appreciated Green’s heartfelt approach towards infertility, adoption, and raising unique children, but at the end of the day the whole thing would have benefited from a few more doses of odd.