“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” has all the attributes of a family movie — it’s gentle, earnest and told in broad strokes, and it is careful to telegraph for adult audiences that it plans to take up a serious subject. At the same time, this contemporary fable doesn’t have just a single moral.
For adults, it’s a cautionary tale of the perils of over-parenting. Its message to children is more subversive, counseling a kind tolerance for the sorts of mommies and daddies who can’t help trying to vindicate their own shortcomings through the glorification of their offspring.
Cindy and Jim Green (played by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) aren’t able to conceive a child of their own, despite extensive efforts at a fertility clinic. The movie is framed by the Greens’ telling their story to a pair of adoption counselors in a menacingly named quasi-government agency that is charged with evaluating their fitness as adoptive parents. The action flits back and forth between a cheerless conference room and the impossibly idyllic small town of Stanleyville, a rustic burg of Victorian houses and stately trees, where life is centered around the local pencil factory.
Cindy and Jim, on the advice of their fertility doctor, put aside their efforts to have a child. Before giving up all hope, they share a bottle of wine and write down all their hopes and dreams they had for the child they now realize isn’t in their future. They put the list into a wooden box and bury it in their large vegetable patch. By some act of magic or divine intervention, a beautiful 10-year-old boy (played by C.J. Adams, in his first major role) pops up from the ground and joins their lives.
He comes to them fully formed, with the name of Timothy, the ability to speak and write in English and one or two eccentricities, including a smattering of bright, indestructible green leaves that grow from his shins.
After their astonishment wears off, Cindy and Jim try to integrate Timothy into their life and that of the town. Outside their happy home, there are dark clouds. The pencil factory may close. Jim’s gruff father, played by the reliably excellent David Morse, is dismissive of Timothy’s abilities, awakening in Jim traumatic memories of his own unhappy boyhood. Cindy’s well-to-do sister Brenda (Rosemarie DeWitt) flaunts her own children’s gifts and is dismissive of Timothy’s odd behavior.
Timothy is able to find some escape from these heartaches by keeping company with a mysterious older girl who has divined the secret of his green leaves. Neither she, nor her parents, nor the audience is told precisely what kind of creature Timothy is. But as the sumptuous autumn, redolent in reds and oranges, unfolds around them, the idea that Timothy’s fate is somehow linked to the season of change begins to take shape.
Cindy and Jim are depicted as flawed but vibrant and humane characters who recognize their defects as parents. But only a deep crisis wrests them from the toxic, everyday narcissism that grips them and most of the people around them. For a Disney movie, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” offers an oddly dark perspective on the impulses that drive modern parents. This subtext doesn’t drive the movie, which is on its surface sweet and optimistic, but it is there for the asking.
TITLE: “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”
CREDITS: Directed by Peter Hedges; screenplay by Mr. Hedges, based on a story by Ahmet Zappa
RATING: PG for a mild curse here and there, and the vaguest of allusions to how babies are made.
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS