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A fairy tale about parenting that stays kid-friendly without completely glossing over the darker themes of its premise, Peter Hedges‘s The Odd Life of Timothy Green unsurprisingly concludes that anyone who really wants a child should have one, but it finds time along the way to warn future parents just how bad at it they might be. As the title character, wise-beyond-his-years CJ Adams is a forgiving stand-in for the family pic’s younger viewers, in tune with an overall optimistic vibe that should play respectably well at the box office.
Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play Cindy and Jim Green, heartland dwellers whose passion to conceive borders on the pathological. Finally accepting their doctor’s conclusion that no treatment will make it happen, they spend one last night fantasizing about the kid who will never inhabit their already-decorated nursery. They scribble all the boy’s imagined attributes on pieces of paper, put the notes in a wooden box and bury it in the yard with the same reverence they’d afford a stillborn fetus.
As they sleep, the weathervane switches directions. A freak storm arrives, pouring rain on just their house in this drought-stricken town. The earth heaves and releases a young boy, perfect except for a dozen or so unpruneable leaves growing near his ankles.
As the couple try to pass Timothy off as their adopted son and integrate him into small-town life, they make not only the expected, overprotective mistakes but some serious enough to give thoughtful viewers pause. Hedges (working from a story by Ahmet Zappa) finds clever ways, within this fantasy’s conceits, to talk about the pitfalls of clinging to too-specific expectations about a child’s path. Jim and Cindy’s own failures are exacerbated by work and family pressures; it’s frustrating to see actors as fine as Rosemarie DeWitt and David Morse (playing Cindy’s uptight sister and Jim’s scornful father) cast as under-imagined heavies here, but M. Emmet Walsh turns a few short scenes into something lovely.
Those leaves on Timothy’s legs prove important, of course. John Toll‘s rich cinematography emphasizes the colors of a ripening fall, supplying a Disney-appropriate warmth while foreshadowing our hero’s imminent defoliation and prompting us to consider what it might mean for him.
The story is told in flashback, as Cindy and Tim recount their adventure to an adoption agency official (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who’s weighing their fitness to take in a new child. Adding an extra layer of real-world literalism to a fable about magic among unbelievers is an iffy choice. But it’s one Hedges requires in order to deliver a feel-good conclusion to a tale that was really born to be bittersweet.
Production: Walt Disney Pictures, Scott Sanders Productions, Monsterfoot Productions
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Odeya Rush, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, M. Emmet Walsh, Lois Smith, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dianne Wiest, Ron Livingston, Common
Director-screenwriter: Peter Hedges
Producers: Scott Sanders, James Whitaker, Ahmet Zappa
Executive producers: John Cameron, Mara Jacobs
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Music: Geoff Zanelli
Costume designer: Susie DeSanto
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Rated PG, 104 minutes
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