Peter Hedges’ new film, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” features characters similar to those of his last film, “Dan in Real Life”: clueless but well-meaning parents and children that are wise beyond their years. Whereas as “Dan in Real Life” was a breath of fresh air, including an all-star cast and modern themes, the characters in “Timothy Green” are plain and hackneyed and play out a story so simple-minded and quaint that it could have been written 30 years ago.
When the film opens, we meet the lackluster Jim (Joe Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner), a perfectly nice couple who are vying to adopt a child after failing to conceive. In their interview with the adoption agency, they insist on telling the unlikely story of Timothy Green (C.J. Adams), the adorable and resilient boy who crawled his way out of their garden so they could make all their parenting mistakes on him.
When Timothy shows up at the ripe age of 10–allowing them to skip all those inconvenient parts of parenting like screaming babies and changing diapers–we slowly discover he has all the qualities the Greens dreamed of. He is Picasso with a pencil, but he is also, as they had hoped, “honest to a fault,” and he leaves in the plentiful chin hair of his mother’s boss when drawing her portrait. He helps his parents discover and live out their professional dreams, and he even teaches a local girl to be proud of her one charming imperfection: an ill-placed birthmark. In short, Timothy is there to save his parents, not to be an entity of his own with agency: He gets no say in the decision to be signed up for soccer, since this is necessary for his father to overcome his own daddy issues.
The film is so intent on remaining chipper that Timothy’s only real fault is a quirky one: He has leaves growing out of his calves, shedding them with every good deed he does. Afraid that he will be ridiculed for this, his parents try to hide and remove the leaves–with the best intentions, of course–before realizing they have to love him just the way he is. The leaves, of course, work as a shallow metaphor for other blemishes children might have and be made ashamed of by their parents. If you replace the Greens’ plea of “don’t let anybody see your leaves” with “don’t let anyone find out you’re gay,” these are the kinds of well-meaning parenting mistakes that can turn into deeply embedded problems for children. But unlike many of the very real issues kids and parents these days have to deal with–sexual identity, physical and mental disabilities, racism, religious intolerance–there are no real challenges or complexities to Timothy’s slight imperfection. It’s not much of a plight.
But this is a Disney movie, so if you can suspend your disbelief for this simplistic world, “Green” does have some nice touches. The Greens live in a pencil factory town full of lush colors and in an idyllic Southern home; it’s the perfect setting for a fanciful tale. Garner and Edgerton exude wholesomeness and good intentions, even if they lack star-power charisma.
Hedges deals with the magic in the film in a very real and straightforward way: We meet Timothy when Jim is getting a midnight snack and sees shadows moving in the kitchen. There’s no smoke and mirrors, and the reactions the Greens have are human and realistic. When the doorbell rings the next day–the Greens are to host a family barbecue–we watch Jim remove his socks without discussion to hand to Timothy to cover his leaves; there is no discussion, but it’s an instinctive, beautiful image of parenting. Above all, where “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” really succeeds is in creating characters that are people–imperfect, kind-hearted, well-meaning and realistic people. They just aren’t people dealing with 21st-century problems.