The Odd Life of Timothy Green has all the moments of laughter and tears that should add up to a winning family movie. But its message is so garbled, the unanswered questions mar the experience even as the credits roll.
Walt Disney is marketing this as a family movie, since it has almost no objectionable content. (The film is rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language.) Writer and director Peter Hedges told WORLD he thinks families can enjoy it together and talk about it later, but since the movie is more about parenting than magical adventures, he acknowledged it's unlikely to hold the attention of younger viewers.
Hedges, who often makes films focused on the unique dysfunction of families, here tells a story of a couple named Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) who desperately want to start a family but cannot have a child.
So they write down their dreams of the child they will never create and bury them in a box in the garden. It is an act of grief, not seed sown in faith.
And yet from that seed they harvest a mysterious 10-year-old boy (played by the incredibly expressive CJ Adams). He appears in the middle of the night, covered in dirt, calling them mom and dad and declaring his name is Timothy. "When you plant something, it's such a hopeful act," Hedges said of Timothy's garden origins. "Making anything is an act of faith."
The movie seeks to mirror that "magic" with a subplot about a pencil factory closing, taking with it the tiny Pennsylvania town's sole industry. While Timothy completely revolutionizes the Greens-as children tend to do-he also directly changes the entire community.
But the connection between Timothy and the town's economy, a thin metaphor for believing in outside-the-box "possibilities," doesn't quite work. Instead, the movie's most concrete statement is that parents can pour all their hopes and dreams into a child, but in the end the result will surprise them.
"The concept was that he manifests the qualities they imagined, but those qualities don't necessarily lead to the results that they imagine," Hedges explained. "What happens if you get the kid of your dreams? You would learn that your kids aren't going to heal your holes, the wounds in your heart, that you can't use your kid to fix your childhood. That's not their job."
The movie does not take itself too seriously in explaining Timothy. There are plenty of earned, hilarious moments as the Greens attempt to integrate their new "son" into their lives, but the plot seems an afterthought to the existence of this inexplicable boy grown in a garden.
In fact, the movie takes a circular journey, as narrated by the Greens during an adoption agency interview. They explain they want a child because of their experience with Timothy, yet their story about Timothy begins with their intense desire for a child.
The movie is much more about how Jim and Cindy Green struggle to step into their roles as parents than about Timothy's "odd life." Along the way, they struggle with how involved they should be in Timothy's friendship with an older girl, how to encourage him in sports, and whether they should cover up his "differences" (such as the leaves growing out of his legs).
"The thing most important to me was that they not be idealized, that they be human," Hedges said of the Greens. "They commit parental crimes; most of them are misdemeanors, but a few felonies along the way."
The Greens confess toward the end that they expect to continue making mistakes as parents, just "different mistakes." The statement has a ring of truth to it that the rest of the movie does not, since in Timothy the Greens were dealing with an entirely self-contained child, seemingly immune to fear or baggage and untouched by whether or not they were good parents. Timothy taught the Greens a lesson, more than they taught him.