The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Making a family film — as distinguished from a straight-up kids’ movie — has got to be one of the toughest balancing acts out there. There’s a fine line between heartwarming far like We Bought a Zoo and Flipped and glurgey, saccharine pap like War Horse. The Odd Life of Timothy Green walks confidently up to that line, and then stumbles back and forth all over it.
Adapted by director Peter Hedges from a story by Ahmet Zappa, and boasting a truly star-studded cast, the film is built around a striking premise. Distraught at a final diagnosis of infertility, Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy (Jennifer Garner) Green fantasize about their ideal child — “funny”, “sweet”, “a Picasso with a pencil”, “just one time kicks the game-winning soccer goal”. To avoid describing an annoyingly perfect kid they include “honest to a fault”, which is about as smarmy and insipid as telling your interviewer your biggest flaw is being a perfectionist.
They write all these out in pencil on scraps of paper, place them in a pencil-case, and bury it in their garden, deep in that rich, loamy Illinois soil that even in the midst of water restrictions can seemingly grow anything. Including, it would seem, the Greens’ ideal son — Timothy (CJ Adams) — who shows up in the middle of the night covered in dirt and sporting a cluster of green, heart-shaped leaves sprouting from each of his shins. Something magic is clearly afoot here but, not the type to look a gift child in the mouth, the Greens explain Timothy as an adoptee and have him cover his leaves since “sometimes people make fun of people who are different”.
Did I mention pencils a lot? The Greens live in Stanleyville, Illinois, which seems to revolve entirely around the Stanley pencil factory, where Jim works. Cindy is a docent at the Stanley pencil museum. The youth soccer team is the Erasers. And with the factory in some vague danger of closing it’s clear Timothy is here to help more than just the Greens.
He does start smaller, at least, with the self-conscious Joni (Odeya Rush) — three years older than any other kid we see, and with a massive port-wine stain on her chest. He eases the last days of Cindy’s uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh) and comforts her aunt Mel (Lois Smith). He breaks through the hard, cold exterior of Cindy’s shrewish boss (Diane Wiest). Tonally, these are some of the most beautiful section, especially Adams’ interactions with Rush.
But when it comes to the Greens themselves, things get a lot more uneven. Jim has unresolved issues with his father (David Morse) and with his boss (Ron Livingston), while Cindy has her own issues with her striving, overbearing sister, Brenda Best (Rosemarie DeWitt), about which surname the less said the better. I can absolutely see how Jim’s ambivalent relationship to male authority leads him to second-guess his own role as an authority figure, and how Cindy’s background made her into the risk-averse, neurotic worrywart we see, and I commend Edgerton and Garner on effectively embodying these roles. But it’s simply excruciating to see them work these issues out on screen.
For all the inspirational lessons learned about how it’s okay to make mistakes and how everything will work out in the end, what comes across most clearly is how utterly unprepared these two people are to be parents. Yes, nobody is ever truly prepared, but the stress of trying to get pregnant in the first place and having their hopes dashed has these two at such a breaking point that they fall to pieces on an almost-daily basis when confronted with an all-but-literal saint of a child. The story is a beautiful idea, but something falls apart on the journey from idea to execution.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.