"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" wears its peculiarities like big badges of honor. Produced by Walt Disney Pictures, this live-action fable is the best original project the studio has rustled together in at least a few years. Not based on any sort of pre-existing material when most everything these days derives from a video game or a novel, writer-director Peter Hedges (2003's "Pieces of April
") should be commended for his ability to get something fresh and new out there for the mainstream to behold. In exchange, viewers of all ages ought to return the favor by buying tickets and supporting the effort. A tale about the disappointments life can hand a person and the unexpected joys that can make the negative stuff worth wading through, the film traverses such topics as parenthood, coming-of-age, sibling rivalry, and the limited time (for some, more limited than others) we all have on earth while remaining charming and inspiring. In different hands, for a filmmaker who might have missed out on the bigger picture and underlying messages, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" could have come off as unusually morose fare for a family movie. Under the helm of Hedges, however, it's anything but, favoring whimsy and the beauty of the unknown over darkness and stark realism.
Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) live in a cozy country home on the edge of Stanleyville, best known for being "The Pencil Capital of the World." By day, Cindy leads tours at the Crudstaff House and Pencil Museum while Jim works at theyou guessed itpencil factory. When word comes from the doctor that their chances of conception are slim to none, the couple are heartbroken, seeing their dreams for the future vanish before their eyes. Before they let go of having a child, however, they create an imaginary son, filling out pieces of paper with details of what he might have been like were he to exist. Compiling them all together, they bury them in a box in the backyard, then head to bed. Before daybreak, a freak storm and a miracle concurrently take place, culminating in young Timothy Green (CJ Adams) literally rising from the garden. Roughly ten years old and already with the knowledge that Jim and Cindy are his parents, he is an unusual but thoroughly disarming lad, as human as anyone else, save for one difference: he has green leaves growing around his ankles. Once they've gotten over the shock of it all, Jim and Cindy welcome Timothy as their son, under the guise that they've chosen to adopt. He's not always the best at sports or playing music or anything else, but he's wholly himself, and he's loved even as his mom and dad struggle and make mistakes as new parents do. As the summer turns to autumn, Timothy chooses to keep one difficult truth to himself: that his leaves have begun to yellow and fall from his body. When the last one detaches, he will be no more.
"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is almost like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
" for younger audiences and could potentially be used as an excellent introduction to the idea of mortality and the universal process of living and dying. Though dealing in difficult subject matter by the conclusion, the film is gentle and hopeful and reassuring rather than morbid and depressing, writer-director Peter Hedges giving the tone just the right delicate, sweet touch. It may only be for a short time, but Jim and Cindy are allowed to experience what it feels like to be responsible for another living person, with Timothy teaching them about the value of compassion and the importance of brushing off the small stuff (initially, Cindy would like nothing more than to finally one-up her sister Brenda, played by Rosemarie Dewitt, whose own children can seemingly do no wrong). And, lest it appear that the film has taken a narrow-minded view of rearing children, let it be know that Jim and Cindy are very much aware of adoption, coming to realize how perfect it would be for them.
Jennifer Garner (2011's "Arthur
") and Joel Edgerton (2011's "Warrior
") are just about perfect fits for small-town couple Cindy and Jim, believable as people who have only really known life away from the hustle and bustle of a bigger, busier place. From crestfallen at the start over the bad news they're handed, to in amazement and thankful by the mysterious, unexplainable workings of the world, to disappointed in themselves when they allow conflict and arguments to enter their marriage, being parents, as Cindy and Jim find, is a gradual learning experience. Meanwhile, the fictional Stanleyville becomes its own character. Shot in Georgia, presumably posing as New England, cinematographer John Toll (2011's "The Adjustment Bureau
") has taken full advantage of the lush rural surroundings, from the sun-dappled forests and fields to the quaint storefronts, town halls and cottage-like museums. Like a dream or a fairy tale, one imagines that if a child were ever to really grow out of the soil, it would happen in a place like Stanleyville. As Timothy, CJ Adams (2007's "Dan in Real Life
") is extraordinarily headstrong, and not in a show-offish sort of way, either. Eccentric and loveable, Adams also must bring wisdom and an air of sadness to his role. He's human, but also something more than that, and Adams gets this quirk right. It is easy to see how he could make such a deep and lasting impression on Jim and Cindy so quickly.
Supporting turns vary depending on how fully they're written and how much area the actors get to play with the roles. Dianne Wiest (2010's "Rabbit Hole
") certainly makes the most of the crabby Ms. Crudstaff, descendant to the town's claim to fame and Cindy's boss at the museum. When Timothy agrees to draw a portrait of her in all its honesty, the outcome is very funny, right down to the whiskers on her chin. M. Emmet Walsh (2010's "Youth in Revolt
") is touching as the ill Uncle Bub, a cheerful elderly family patriarch who takes an immediate liking to Timothy. Newcomer Odeya Rush is a nice find as Joni, just a year or two older than Timothy, who bonds with him because they're both different (she's got a large birthmark on her chest that has left her insecure about what she wears). David Morse (2011's "Drive Angry
"), as Jim's critical father, and Ron Livingston (2010's "Dinner for Schmucks
"), as crooked factory manager Franklin Crudstaff, are given less to do, mostly forced to play types. They serve their purpose, with one of them learning the error of his ways and the other rightfully revealed for the con man he is.
A quality motion picture of humor, dramatic connectivity, and flights of fancy, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is smart and lively, never talking down to younger viewers but adjusting to meet them eye-to-eye. Bathroom humor or anything of a coarse nature? Look elsewhere. A slice-of-life with a mystical undercurrent, one that will stick with viewers of any age? Look no further. Just as Jim and Cindy come to love Timothy unconditionally, so, too, should it come as a loud-and-clear message for parents to embrace their own children, even if they don't share all the same interests or excel at all of the same things they maybe had envisioned for them from the start. Being different isn't a bad thing, but what makes us our own person, unlike anyone else, and that should be more than enough. "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" understands this in spades.