Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a film full of wonderful, poignant moments that remind us of the importance of family and self-acceptance, but it seldom carries much of a story or the expected element of fantasy. It’s the rare movie that hits you hard with crucial messages that parents may need to absorb more than their children, although these “pearls of wisdom” contained within The Odd Life of Timothy Green may linger on in your mind more than the film’s somewhat thin plot and slightly askew screenplay. There are lines from the script that surprise you by their originality and quotability, but often times I felt as though director/writer Peter Hedges may have been pushing us faster to the end of Timothy’s journey more than he perhaps intended to. While my feelings toward the actual film went back and forth in my mind as I pondered what score to give it, I ultimately had to settle on one substantial component: The Odd Life of Timothy Green is the first film of 2012 to make me tear up, lump in throat included. Now that’s something magical.
Our mini fable begins with a flash-forward establishing scene at an adoption agency. There, parents Cindy and Jim Green — played affectionately imperfect by the delightful Jennifer Garner and the truly gifted Joel Edgerton — make a final plea to the agency in the hopes that they’ll be granted the opportunity to start a real family, an impossible feat at one point in the couples’ lives. Cindy’s inability to bear children doesn’t stall her dreams of one day becoming a parent; rather, her and Jim are as dedicated and “prepared” to raise a family as they’ll ever be. Scrutinizing their every word is an outwardly chilly yet downright infectious adoption agency facilitator, who is played to perfection by the husky-toned, magnetic force that is the great Shohreh Agdashloo. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Mrs. Agdashloo star in a live-action film (I’m actually now more familiar with her voice work on the Mass Effect video game series), but she’s ever so wonderful here as a skeptic-turned-believer after listening to Cindy and Jim’s retelling of their encounter with a boy named Timothy Green, a narrative the Greens hope will convince the agency of their parental viability. To my shock, Shohreh Agdashloo draws quite a few laughs from the film by her reactions to some of the seemingly outlandish events that Jim and Cindy narrate. Agdashloo may want to consider a new career in comedy, because she’s surprisingly adept at making us chuckle quite hard.
The Green family only have a limited window to tell their tale of Timothy Green before the interview session time runs out. As we watch the film unfold and see Timothy Green’s story begin to really flourish, we learn that time is truly of the essence. I don’t want to spoil a movie-going experience that’s sure to be filled with wonder and surprises, so I’ll keep the details of the plot to a bare minimum. Suffice it to say, Timothy Green is a boy created from a list constructed by Cindy and Jim, a list which describes their ideal child: he’s musical, he is sweet, and he’s the perfect mixture of both Cindy and Jim’s personalities. As adorable as Jim and Cindy Green are as parents, it’s hard not to cringe when they list off attributes they want their “ideal child” to have. There is no such thing as an “ideal child,” and to see two parents pray so hard to have a child be exactly how they want him or her to be, instead of the person they become through organic development, is both alarmingly uncomfortable and strangely realistic. Not just in this scene, but in many additional scenes in The Odd Life of Timothy Green, does parenting get scrutinized with a very critical eye, and the film’s value jumps levels because of it.
After Cindy and Jim place their fantasy list in a box and bury it out in the garden, rain pours over the shrub and greenery, and a boy named Timothy Green appears completely covered in mud, ready to give Jim and Cindy Green the biggest test as parents they’re ever likely to have. It’s of little consequence whether you find the fairytale aspect of The Odd Life of Timothy Green to be incredulous or unbelievable — it’s magic and Disney, two great partnerships, so it’s best to not ponder on the story’s plausibility and just roll with the punches. From then on, the film basically consists of a bunch of small moments of familial life with the Greens and their new child, some moments more memorable and emotionally-stirring than others, but there’s no sense that an actual story is taking place. The lack of a clear and engaging narrative is what ultimately keeps The Odd Life of Timothy Green from being a masterpiece — in fact, it often feels as though the “storyline’s” only purpose is to get to that all-important climax — but nevertheless certain moments pack a wallop in terms of emotional brute force. By the time you get to that climax — beautifully shot by cinematographer John Toll and wonderfully scored by film composer Geoff Zanelli — you’ll end up like me: a tearful mess of a viewer, especially odd considering I never weep for anything at the movies. All the credit to my sentimentality has to go to the believable chemistry built between Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, and titular star CJ Adams. The trio act and feel like a real family, and CJ Adams, besides delivering the showstopping performance of the film, physically resembles his on-screen dad, Joel Edgerton.
Ultimately, it’s Green’s genuine familial chemistry together that ensnares your emotions throughout the duration of The Odd Life of Timothy Green. When signs appear that foreshadow a possible fracture between the Greens, it’s difficult to ignore feelings of anxiety, fear and heartache. I was stunned how quickly I came to fall in love with the Greens, oddities and all. Director and screenwriter Peter Hedges clearly transcended his love for this story, created by author Ahmet Zapa, to his actors. Jennifer Garner, CJ Adams, and Joel Edgerton sink into their roles with such unabashed bravery that no matter how foolish they may seem at times, it’s in the name of committing themselves to the Greens’ and the intimate bubble that they’ve created together. There are so many incredible “family” moments in the movie, but the one that touched me the most was when Cindy’s perfectionist sister, Brenda (played by Rosemarie Dewitt), tries to call Cindy’s bluff that Timothy is musically gifted. Brenda pushes Timothy to perform a musical routine in front of the entire neighborhood community, and much to the horror of Cindy and Jim, Timothy agrees. What ensues is perhaps the most raw and heartwarming movie moment I’ve experienced so far in 2012. Let’s just say that the Green family beat to their own drum, and we love them for it. They support each other in a way that you wish every family in the world could. Garner and Edgerton give some of the best work of their careers in this scene.
Breaking down the lead actors, it really is CJ Adams who runs away with the film. He’s not an experienced actor, yet he’s a consummate professional when it comes to reacting to dialogue and effortlessly embodying his character’s innocence and “cutesy” factor without missing a beat. Timothy Green really doesn’t have a bad bone in his body, and CJ Adams never glosses his performance over with the typical pretentiousness that comes with many child actor performances (by the fault of the director, mind you). Hedges really just lets CJ Adams be himself, and he shines brightly in this regard, trusting his instincts as an actor and letting those instincts uplift both the character of Timothy Green and the film itself.
Peter Hedges could not have asked for two better actors to play parents than Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton. Jennifer Garner plays Cindy a tad immaturely and naive, but we soon come to realize how responsible she can really be after learning from her mistakes. This may not be Garner’s best role to date (that honor goes to her astounding work in 2007’s Juno), but her performance in this film proves that Garner is an underrated player in Hollywood. Like Julia Roberts at her very best, Garner has that same ability of balancing a sweet and infectious personality with the gravitas to really tackle some dark and dramatic material. I wouldn’t ever denote The Odd Life of Timothy Green as a dark film, but some of the heavier themes in the film will probably have deeper meaning to a parent than their child who’s watching.
Now if there’s any potential Oscar nominations coming from The Odd Life of Timothy Green, it’s a “Best Supporting Actor” nod for Joel Edgerton’s “Father of the Year” role as Jim Green. Edgerton’s film choices have always been interesting, but I may even go as far as to say this performance surpasses the greatness he delivered in last year’s Warrior. Instead of expressing himself physically, like he does in many of his films, Edgerton does so much more this time with pure human emotion. Viewers who come out of this film will be floored knowing that Edgerton himself is not a parent, because he completely sells that role so believably. Jim is a man who never knew how to stand up or say no to anyone, especially to his fearsome dad (David Morse). It takes standing by his son Timothy, at the toughest and most embarrassing of times, for Jim to find the strength and be both the man and the father he always wished his father could have been. Jim’s transition as a father in the film is simply marvelous to watch, and Edgerton excels in branching out all the layers of complexity that Jim’s character offers.
There are some throwaway performances and plot pieces I could have done without, however. The subplot of the town being hit hard economically, and the local factory potentially being shut down, does reflect our country’s current financial crisis but also seems like a cliched plot thread that’s interjected quite randomly into the story of Timothy Green. The boss of the factory, played by Ron Livingston, is a caricature of that self-serving, arrogant boss that you so detest. He reminds me a lot of Colin Farrell in Horrible Bosses, but that type of satirical role is more suited to the aforementioned 2011 comedy and seems a little bit at odds with The Odd Life Of Timothy Green’s sentimentalism. However, it is nice that Peter Hedges uses Livingston’s character of Franklin Crudstaff to show how bullying is instituted in the home, by the parents, who then send their kids to school with that kind of hate-mongering mentality they inadvertently spread. In fact, the biggest strength of Peter Hedge’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green is the way it critiques the parental enforcement of “child competition.” This is none more obvious than during the film’s soccer match scene, where you begin to realize how pitting kids against each other could have a real impact on their adult behavior. The soccer moms and dads of the world — and I’m not saying all deserve to — may watch this film and cringe after seeing how hate, ignorance, intolerance, and bullying is bred through these types of “community” activities. With the recent controversy surrounding the Chick-fil-A debacle, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green has suddenly found itself to be the most socially relevant film of the year.
Other supporting players include Dianne Wiest as Cindy’s gratuitously unfriendly boss, Tony Award-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda as Reggie the neighborhood botanist, and newcomer Odeya Rush who plays Joni, an older girl who is strangely drawn to Timothy Green. All three make their short roles mean something, but I slightly wished that each of their characters was given more room to develop. Odeya Rush has an alluring presence, and could be a major star, but needed her role expanded to really flesh out her character. Odeya’s Joni remains too much of an enigma throughout the film to be of any real importance. Wiest has an incredibly funny scene, but again…too much was built around the promise that her character was to have more to chew on in the film, and the screenplay doesn’t do enough to really deliver on this promise. As for Lin-Manuel Miranda, I’d call his role more of a cameo than a supporting role, but he does brief yet fine work nonetheless. Even Common appears in the film as a nauseating soccer coach, but like Miranda, he’s no more than a cameo.
I’m now wrapping up my review, and not once have I felt the need to mention the fantasy element that surrounds The Odd Life Of Timothy Green. Why? Simply because it doesn’t really matter, and I believe Peter Hedges would concur. There is some great symbolism and metaphors that derive from the leaves that are attached to Timothy Green’s legs, but the leaves are primarily used as a plot device, not so much as a supernatural wonder. The magic and ethereal quality of The Odd Life Of Timothy Green is surface level. Beneath the fantasy lies a compelling family drama, with characters who matter more than you’d imagine they would. I just wish the incredible moments of the film were strung together in a tighter, more cohesive fashion, so that the movie would feel more like an actually story and less like a series of brief yet effectual vignettes. However, my complaints don’t extend far enough to keep me from recommending this strong, emotionally-stirring family dramedy. There are far too many messages to attain, syrupy as that may sound, for one to simply bypass, especially for parents who need a reality check on the consequences of parental mishandling. If there’s one thing you should feel after walking away from your screening of The Odd Life Of Timothy Green, it’s that Timothy Green isn’t the odd one — we are.