A charming, very funny film that has no place on the Sundance program, Tom McCarthy’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is a mainstream children’s movie, made by the world’s most powerful entertainment conglomerate, competing for attention at a fest that never stops reminding us it’s the champion of independent, radical, and underheard voices. It isn’t McCarthy’s fault that Disney has a new home video service to push, and that a quick debut on Park City’s prestigious screens represents cheap promotion for a pic that will be streaming 13 days from now. But Sundance programmers, who say they received more Kids-section submissions than ever this year, should think about their priorities. If you’re reading this review because you’re wondering what to cue up on your Disney+ subscription, Timmy Failure is the best of the new service’s original programs by a wide margin. (Take that, you one-note Baby Yoda.) If you’re reading it for the purposes of plotting out a Sundance schedule, by all means, go find a film that needs to be discovered.
Based on a series of books by cartoonist/author Stephan Pastis (who wrote the screenplay with McCarthy), Timmy Failure is set in Portland, Oregon, and enjoys using Portland-weird local color as context for its oddball hero’s mission. Fifth-grader Timmy Failure (Winslow Fegley, in his big-screen debut) lives alone with a mom (Ophelia Lovibond’s Patty) who’s much cooler than most in kid-flicks; she’s also struggling to support them. In his mind, Timmy runs a business sure to set them up for life — assuming his big oaf of a partner doesn’t get the operation shut down.
When the boy’s dad walked out on them years ago, an imaginary friend entered Timmy’s life: In flashback, we see a giant polar bear named Total push his way into the Failure household and get curious about Timmy’s breakfast cereal. Total, who we’re told was driven south by global warming, immediately became Timmy’s constant companion. We often see him in the background of Timmy’s daily life, quietly destroying something that attracts his attention.
The pic doesn’t play this as a Calvin/Hobbes scenario, in which the real boy is wreaking havoc he blames on his imaginary friend. That’s one of very few opportunities for comedy this film doesn’t grab: Even before its introductory voiceover was done, this grown-up viewer in an empty room found himself laughing out loud.
Timmy, you see, imagines that he’s a private eye, and while he’s too young to have read Chandler, he has the know-it-all shtick down pat. Fegley never lets the deadpan overconfidence drop, even when Timmy has no idea what he’s talking about. (When a client laments losing his Swiss Army Knife, Timmy announces, “So you’re Swiss.”) He may remind adult viewers of Fletch, or Jason Schwartzman’s thick-headed gumshoe on Bored to Death.
Mom lovingly supports Timmy’s fantasy, even when it causes a touch of trouble outside their home. He’s unpopular and a terrible student at school, genuinely not interested in learning real-world facts. (That character trait, the mention above of global warming and other pieces of the scenario set Timmy Failure apart from don’t-offend-anyone family fare.) He’s a thorn in the side of Wallace Shawn’s perfectly named Mr. Crocus, a world-weary wise-ass who probably should’ve stopped teaching years ago. And while a couple of his fellow students like him — the permanently cheerful Molly Moskins (Chloe Coleman), and Rollo Tookus (an actor named Kei), who might be Timmy’s best friend if there weren’t a bear hanging around — he’s just as likely to antagonize kids as teachers: He dubs one girl (Ai-Chan Carrier), who’s supposed to work with him every day, “The Nameless One,” and imagines she’s at the heart of Portland’s crime-ridden underworld. (Odds are, Timmy just has a budding crush on the sweet kid, and can’t process the feeling.)
As the film unfolds, this mini-Marlowe encounters mysteries both real (he loses his mother’s Segway, the only valuable thing she owns) and imaginary. But as in all the great detective stories, the details are irrelevant. What matters is that our hero faces many dangers, even if, in this case, they’re almost always of his own making. Crucially, the high stakes are real: Timmy’s on the verge of creating such a mess that even Patty will insist he has to learn to fit in.
Along the way, McCarthy and Pastis offer hilarious visualizations of how an undereducated kid tries to understand the world. (When Rollo mentions fencing class, Timmy mentally flashes to a room in which kids learn the difference between picket, chain-link and lattice.) And they force him to interact with people he’d rather dismiss, like the lovably ordinary “meter maid” (Kyle Bornheimer) who hopes to be his mother’s boyfriend. If only he can incorporate some of his real-world compromises into a viable version of his detective fantasies.
McCarthy has made an enviable range of adult fare since Sundance embraced his debut, The Station Agent, in 2003, and looks to be headed back to that territory in the upcoming Stillwater. His efforts at pure, unserious entertainment have so far been less successful, but Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made shows he can ace a comedy just as well as a journalism procedural about child abuse. There’d be worse things than to see him get the gang together for another Timmy Failure adventure soon, provided it earns him the free time to conceive his next intimate, character-driven film that actually belongs at Sundance.
Production companies: Slow Pony Pictures, Whitaker Entertainment
Cast: Winslow Fegley, Ophelia Lovibond, Wallace Shawn, Craig Robinson, Kyle Bornheimer, Ai-Chan Carrier, Chloe Coleman, Kei, Caitlin Weierhauser
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriters: Tom McCarthy, Stephan Pastis
Producers: Jim Whitaker, Tom McCarthy
Executive producers: Michael Bederman, Kate Churchill
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Tom McArdle
Composer: Rolfe Kent
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Rated PG, 99 minutes