Director – Peter Hedges, Screenplay – Peter Hedges & Ahmet Zappa, Story – Ahmet Zappa, Producers – Scott Sanders, James Whitaker & Ahmet Zappa, Photography – John Toll, Music – Geoff Zanelli, Visual Effects – CoSA Visual Effects, Method Studios (Supervisor – Gregory Oehler) & The Mill (Supervisor – Paul O’Shea), Special Effects Supervisor – Bobby Vasquez, Makeup Effects – KNB EFX Group, Inc. (Supervisors – Howard Berger & Greg Nicotero), Production Design – Wynn Thomas. Production Company – Disney
Jennifer Garner (Cindy Green), Joel Edgerton (Jim Green), C.J. Adams (Timothy Green), Odeya Rush (Joni Jerome), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Evette Onat), Rosemarie DeWitt (Brenda Best), David Morse (Big Jim Green), Ron Livingston (Franklin Crudstaff), Common (Coach Cal), M. Emmet Walsh (Uncle Bub), Dianne Wiest (Bernice Crudstaff), Lois Smith (Aunt Mel), Michael Arden (Doug Wert)
Husband and wife Jim and Cindy Green are undergoing an interview for an adoption application. They explain their unique story to the officials. They lived in the idyllic town of Stanleyville, where Jim worked at the town’s pencil factory and Cindy as a guide at the pencil museum. They were told by their doctor that they were unable to conceive a child. Consoling themselves, they wrote all the things that their ideal child would be down on pieces of paper and buried them in a box in the garden. They were startled when, following a freak rainstorm that only affected their house, a mystery ten year-old boy appeared inside the house, naked and caked in mud. He introduced himself as Timothy and said that he was their son and had emerged from the garden. They willingly embraced him, although were baffled by the fact that leaves grew out of his legs. As they introduced him to their family and placed him in school, Timothy’s unworldwise ways caused many problems. However, Timothy’s innocence and lack of guile also held a unique magic that helped him shine through in ways that constantly amazed them.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green was pitched as Disney’s big live-action entry for 2012. It has a decided oddness surrounding it. For one, there is the premise – of childless parents who gain a magic boy that sprouts up from their garden. This makes Timothy Green resemble fairytales like Tom Thumb and Thumbelina wherein children magically appear to childless parents from out of seed pods or granted by wishes. Most of these fairytale treatments then proceed to tell the adventures of the unusual child in the outside world. By contrast, The Odd Life of Timothy Green focuses on the ordinary magic that Timothy creates in the lives of the people around him – it resembles more a feelgood film like Powder (1995) about the effects of a miraculous boy in a smalltown environment.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green comes from Peter Hedges. Peter Hedges had been working for a decade as a playwright and had written a couple of novels when his 1991 novel of the same name was adapted into the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). Hedges wrote the film adaptation and subsequently turned out other screenplays such as A Map of the World (1999) and About a Boy (2002) before making his directorial debut with Pieces of April (2003) and going onto the modestly acclaimed Dan in Real Life (2007). The screenplay is a debut for Ahmet Zappa, who previously had worked as an actor and singer, and is probably most famous as the son of iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa.
I had little enthusiasm for The Odd Life of Timothy Green based on its premise. On the plus side, Peter Hedges had delivered some solid writing and directing in his other works and one thought that he would be able to transform the piece. Only he fails to do so and the film drowns in a weight of schmaltz and sentiment. In a story like this, the expected thrust of it is depicting how the character’s uniqueness and extra-special abilities show up everyone else around him – Powder is a perfect example of this. Only here, Timothy’s abilities are decidedly on the banal side – he sprouts leaves from his legs; after angst over his ability to perform, he shows up a stuffy music recital by banging on a percussion instrument causing the two parents to get up and start wildly dancing; after even more angst and worry on the part of the parents, he is finally placed on the soccer team where they are certain he will win the season’s deciding goal – only to kick it into the opposing team’s net; oh and he also inspires the parents to invent a new type of pencil – where the big climactic moment of the film is simply his ability to speak truth to someone who seeks to claim credit for the idea.
What we can see in all of this is less a story about how a gifted child amazes all around them so much as we have is a film about how a gifted child is made to conform and meet up to parental expectations. The point-of-view the film takes is those of the parents (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) rather than Timothy. The entire thrust of the film becomes how Timothy has a remarkable set of gifts inside himself that emerge to show up the judgemental standards of everybody else in the parents’ lives. The music-making scene comes about not because Timothy displays any natural gift for such but because Jennifer Garner feels a need to compete with her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt)’s children’s musical talents and on inspiration says that Timothy has musical gifts without any knowledge that he does. Similarly, Timothy displays no aptitude for soccer – indeed, going by his constant klutziness and the coach (Common)’s concerns for his health, you might argue that he displays negative aptitude – yet it is the two parents who are constantly urging him to try harder and pushing the coach to get him out onto the field because they believe that he will score a winning goal. The reason for this? Because Joel Edgerton wants David Morse, the father who never displayed any pride in him, to be impressed by his kid. Yet when it comes to the scenes where Timothy seems to be acting according to his natural inclination and befriending schoolgirl Odeya Rush and they become engaged on a secretive art project in the woods, we have the two parents trying to keep him away from her and Jennifer Garner even telling Odeya Rush that she thinks that she is “a bad influence on Timothy.” In other words, what we have is not a film about a magic child wowing the world around him but a film about two controlling parents who are constantly pushing a rather ordinary seeming child (whose only unique ability is the means whereby he was born) into conforming to their expectations for him.
Indeed, The Odd Life of Timothy Green being pushed as family entertainment is entirely the wrong pitch for the film. The true audience for the film is not children but a certain type of parents that want to project their own ambitions and need for peer acclaim onto their children – it is a fantasy of them finding a miracle child who transforms their inadequacies and social expectations. It might be entirely possible to write a version of this story from Timothy’s point-of-view that is a nightmare scenario where a child is constantly stifled and forced to do things they don’t want to rather than simply being allowed to be a child.