In the title The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the word “odd” is a bit of an understatement. Timothy is a little boy who grows, in a matter of hours, out of a vegetable garden after it’s been seeded with the wishes of his parents.
Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) and her husband Jim (Joel Edgerton) live in the small town of Stanleyville, where Jim works in the failing pencil factory and Cindy gives tours in the pencil museum. As the movie begins they’re devastated by the news that they can’t conceive. That evening, with the help of some wine, they attempt to move on with their lives by collaborating on “making” an idealized kid, scribbling what they think he’d be like on scraps of notepaper and stuffing them into a little wooden box, which they then bury in Cindy’s garden.
From this sweet, poignant session of self-therapy, the movie swings into the truly odd. Later that night there’s a freak rainstorm which seems only to fall on the Green’s home, after which Jim and Cindy find a mud-covered boy (CJ Adams) of about ten, calling himself Timothy and referring to them as Mom and Dad, has slipped into the house. Timothy is fully formed, articulate, affectionate, funny. His only peculiarity—well, his major peculiarity—are the leaves that grow out of his ankles. He also has a tendency, when the sun emerges from behind the clouds, to respond by turning and opening his arms to bask in its rays.
What follows is a string of episodes in which Timothy’s apparently magical presence revitalizes his parents and their families, as well as the town. He makes a connection with a beautiful older girl, Joni (Odeya Rush), who acts as a sort of bike-borne guardian angel. Each time Timothy suffers a loss or has a growth experience, he notices one of his leaves going autumnal and falling off.
In other words, this is one of those self-consciously whimsical fantasies in which vague supernatural forces intercede positively in people’s lives; Field of Dreams, Phenomenon, Mr. Destiny and The Family Man are all examples. On the whole it’s a genre to which I’m resistant, not because I dislike fantasy (I love it) but because this particular sort so often seems tinged with middle-class self-congratulation.
That said, it should be admitted that some films of this kind are better than others—less shameless, less mushy—and that Odd Life is at the high end of the spectrum. The director is Peter Hedges, who wrote the script from a story by producer Ahmet Zappa. One can only guess what Ahmet’s late and still-lamented dad Frank would think of the film, but I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I got through without a misty eye.
It’s prettily produced, and the acting is strong. Jennifer Garner gave an excellent performance—the best of her career, maybe—in Juno as a similarly earnest, yearning wannabe-Mom. She’s very good again, and Edgerton, a ringer for the young Tom Skerritt, is pleasant company. The supporting cast is full of pros like David Morse as Jim’s distant Dad, Rosemarie DeWitt as Cindy’s pushy sister, Lois Smith and the great M. Emmet Walsh as a jolly aunt and uncle, Shoreh Aghdashloo as an adoption authority, and Dianne Wiest, Ron Livingston and James Rebhorn as representatives of the “Crudstaff” clan behind the pencil factory (by the way, not since Eraserhead, also about a strange parenting experience, has a movie been this interested in the composition of pencils).
These performers and others give Odd Life texture and vitality and a sense of the messiness of real life, which is the point of the story: The difference between parenting as theory and as scary, scrambling, humbling reality. Jim and Cindy are allowed to concoct a child out of their own best qualities, and they still find themselves using him as a pawn in their own agendas. At one point Cindy says “We didn’t want him to be perfect…we wanted it to be perfect…” “it” being Timothy’s childhood. She doesn’t seem to realize that this is possibly an even more insanely control-freak goal, and that even if it could be attained, the perfection would theirs, not the kid’s.