The new Disney movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, is about a special boy who is part tree, and, as you might expect, a little sappy and stiff. The director and co-writer is Peter Hedges, whose estimable track record includes What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, the Katie Holmes film Pieces of April and the script for About A Boy, working here from a short story by Ahmet Zappa (son of rock musician Frank Zappa). The template is pure Capra-corn: small-town Americana, hard times, a topical subplot about workers striving to protect their jobs and a fable with unmistakably Christian echoes, while carefully steering clear of specific religious and political references.
As anodyne as it is, Timothy Green may represent the last gasp of a genre, the live-action family fable, that has been an entertainment staple for a couple of generations of moviegoers. Disney, the company that brought us Herbie the Love Bug and Freaky Friday, used to release 20 or more live-action movies a year but is now down to a trickle. If a children’s movie property doesn’t provide opportunities for theme parks, games, television and toy spin-offs nowadays, it’s unlikely to get produced. Disney (as distinct from its franchise Pixar and Marvel divisions) has released only two live-action films this year: the mega-flop John Carter, and now, The Odd Life of Timothy Green. If Timothy Green feels more like the piety of Forrest Gump than the anarchy of Son of Flubber, at least it’s about humans.
In the idyllic small town of Stanleyville, Jim Green (sharp-featured Australian actor Joel Edgerton, best known for his work in Animal Kingdom) works at the town’s sole industry, a pencil factory, which is in danger of being closed down, which is not surprising in an age when graphite sticks encased in wood have lost their currency as communication tools. His wife, the beatific Cindy (Jennifer Garner) is dependent on the pencil business, because she works as a curator at the local pencil museum. While the message of factory shutdowns looms, this is hardly Michael Moore territory. The one hot button issue that the film exploits is that of couples struggling with infertility issues. For unspecified medical reasons, the Greens are unable to conceive a child. After receiving the bad news from their doctor, they go home and have a ritual where they write down all the qualities they had imagined in a boy and put the notes in a box. Mawkish as the idea sounds, it’s an opportunity for a nicely stripped-down scene, with Garner and Edgerton drinking wine and cheering each other up by imagining their son’s athletic and artistic triumphs.
At the end of the evening, they take the box full of their dreams and bury it in the backyard. Later that night, a muddy, naked, elfin-featured 10-year-old boy (C.J. Adams, from Hedges’ Dan In Real Life) appears in their house, apparently having wandered in from the garden. His name is Timothy and he has leaves growing from his legs. He calls them Mom and Dad. They readily accept their parts in the miraculous event and concoct a story of an instant adoption for curious family and neighbours.
The unflappable and wise Timothy begins to change lives around him. Jim’s grumpy father (David Morse) and Cindy’s imperious boss (Dianne Wiest) are both warmed by the boy’s irrepressible good humour. As well as the leaves around his ankles, Timothy has some other tree-like characteristics, including an inability to be disappointed and a tendency to stand in the sunlight with his arms outstretched. Periodically, the camera swoops up and surveys the burnished autumnal landscape with the subtle-as-an-axe foreshadowing of Timothy’s future. (We know early on that, as the Beatniks used to say, he’s going to do like the trees, and leave). Timothy also has some human inclinations as well, and soon bonds with the improbably beautiful classmate, Joni (Odeya Rush) who relates to him as a fellow misfit, because she has a birthmark on her shoulder.
Neither the romantic subplot – nor the economic one about the collapse of the pencil industry – are much developed. Scenes progress with a paint-by-numbers predictability, as Timothy fulfills each of the wishes that the Greens made when they first buried their hopes in the back yard: He draws, he plays sports, he’s honest to a fault, he’s as funny as Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh). Certainly, there are moments of humour though Hedges’s script never really exploits the absurdity of its premise for its full comic effect.
Providing some distance from the schmaltziness of the premise, Hedges frames the story with a post-Timothy adoption interview that Jim and Cindy have with a skeptical social worker (Shohreh Agadashloo). As they tell the story of their relationship with their child, the official goes from assuming they’re completely delusional to seeing they understand the struggle of parenting, and the paradox of creating a bond with children to teach them to teaching them to live without you.
“We made lots of mistakes,” says Jim.
“We made mistakes trying to fix our mistakes,” adds Cindy.
Most parents would agree, although, unlike the Greens, few can make their mistakes with children who resemble deeply insightful and helpful house plants.