I interviewed writer/director Peter Hedges when he was getting ready to release “Dan In Real Life,” a Steve Carrell movie from a few years ago, and our 20 minute scheduled conversation ended up lasting much longer. Hedges struck me as a decidedly non-Hollywood type, smart and sincere and serious about making movies with a nice mix of sentiment and ideas.
That sensibility is definitely represented in “The Odd Life Of Timothy Green,” the latest movie by Hedges, and there are definitely things to like about the film. It’s uneven, though, with a central conceit that doesn’t quite hang together, and I’m not sure the film’s theme is focused enough to really work. It’s a hard film to dislike because of just how earnest it is, but it’s also a film that has some severe problems, making it hard to give a blanket recommendation.
Hedges, starting from a story by Ahmet Zappa, has crafted a movie that aims to make some profound statements about the nature of parenthood and what it takes to nurture someone, and he is assisted greatly by a cast that includes Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, M. Emmet Walsh, Lois Smith, Dianne Wiest, Ron Livingston, Common, and James Rebhorn. He’s got John Toll shooting, so you know the movie looks great. It is, aesthetically speaking, uncommonly pretty for a Disney live-action family film, and it aims to earn copious tears from you.
When you’re dealing with a topic like parenting and adoption and the way we pass along the things that have happened to us and the way we try not to, you’re tackling big subjects. Playing it with honesty is essential, and when you start with as strange and fantastic a premise as this film does, it’s hard to strike the right tone. The film is framed as a story being told by Cindy (Garner) and Jim (Edgerton) to the people who are going to decide if they get to adopt a child or not. And no matter how hard the film reaches for a whimsical, heartfelt tone, the story they tell is so batshit crazy that I can’t imagine anyone giving them a kid. Ever.
They tell about what happened after they learned that they couldn’t have children of their own. They go home, distraught and hurting, and they begin to talk about the kid they imagined having. They write down all the qualities they wish he could have had, then bury all the scraps of paper in the garden. After a magical rainstorm, a ten year old boy crawls out of the mud and introduces himself as their son, Timothy. He has leaves growing out of his legs, and those leaves are tied to his magical mission to… well, it’s not really clear what his mission is.
That’s a problem, too. When you’re telling a story like this and you ask your audience to buy some big magical device, you need to establish some sense of rules, some sort of clear purpose to things. That’s not the same as saying you have to explain everything. “Groundhog Day” really doesn’t explain anything about how it happens, but it makes total sense as to why things happen. Bill Murray’s character has to learn a series of lessons that are simply too big for him to absorb in one day, and until he learns those lessons, he can’t move forward. Big simple metaphor, communicated perfectly. Here, I don’t really see how Timothy serves as a metaphor for adoption or parenting, and I don’t see the connection between what happens with him and the the film’s overall goals. The film aims for a deeper meaning, but it doesn’t work on a narrative level first, so that deeper meaning falls short as well. There is also a strange love story between Timothy (CJ Adams) and Joni (Odeya Rush) that doesn’t really work. Rush seems several years older than Adams, and while I can see they’re trying to make a point about making someone comfortable with being normal, it isn’t handled right.
Technically, it’s handsomely made, and while I didn’t think the film worked overall, I didn’t have any huge issues with the craft of it. It is a painless film to watch, but it also doesn’t leave much of an impression. Overall, it just seems soft, unfocused, and parents of younger kids may find themselves answering some big questions afterwards that the film raises without offering any answers.
“The Odd Life Of Timothy Green” is in theaters today.