Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Where Did He Come From?: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Ever since her days on Alias, I've been a big fan of Jennifer Garner.  I keep track of what she stars in, and make an effort to see it--if not in the theater, at least on DVD.

One of her latest films is The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a 2012 film about a...

...well, this is perhaps the difficulty of this film.  Because on the one hand, as the film's Wikipedia page says, this movie is "about a magical pre-adolescent boy whose personality and naïveté have profound effects on the people in his town."

But on the other hand...

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is also (and maybe even more) about a couple who cannot have children of their own and who finally see their hopes for a child realized in a magical boy who arrives in their garden.

In The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play Cindy and Jim Green, a couple who live in a small factory town.  Jim works at the factory making pencils, while Cindy is a curator at the town's pencil museum.  Their doctor tells them that after much effort, they are not able to have a baby and it would be best to give up; as part of their grieving process, they write out the qualities they think their child would have had and bury them in the garden.

Enter Timothy--a ten-year-old boy who perfectly fits the description they buried in the garden and who, in fact, says that he came from the garden.  He appears normal in every way, except for the leaves that he has growing on his ankles. Jim and Cindy are thrown headfirst into parenting, having to figure out how to deal with bullying, family relationships, sex ed, and the competitive world of kids' sports all in the space of a few short months.

The child  at the center of the film earns this the label of a "family" movie, but it is really a movie for the parents watching it.  Jim and Cindy are the ones who set up the frame for the film; they are the ones who are the protagonists, not Timothy himself.  It is their growth and change that the film tracks; Timothy actually remains a fairly static character. 

The film received mixed reviews (rating only about 34% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and didn't do very well in the box office, and I think this uncertain sense of its audience and purpose probably played a big part in this.  The film's exploration of how to make mistakes as a parent is actually a very interesting question, but the limitations of the "family" genre resulted in a superficial treatment of this issue.

[mild spoilers follow]

That said, it was an enjoyable way to relax for two hours, and there were even some moments that were unexpectedly thought-provoking, particularly regarding the theme of sanity that threads throughout the film.  The question of sanity is one that is introduced by the frame of the movie.  Jim and Cindy are sitting in an adoption agent's office, telling their story of Timothy as reason for why they are qualified to adopt a child.  They admit that it sounds rather crazy, but ask the agent to bear with them and listen to their story.

The question of sanity comes to a climax late in the movie, when Timothy finally reveals his leaves to the entire town.  Throughout the movie, Jim and Cindy have told Timothy to hide his leaves by wearing socks, so no one in the town knows about them.  Near the end of the film, Timothy is asked to show people his leaves, which he agrees to do.  But at this point, his leaves have started to fall off.  When he pulls down the first sock, there are no more leaves there--all the townspeople see is a normal, bare ankle.  This uncertainty is quickly resolved when he pulls down his second sock to reveal one last leaf, but there is this one moment of hesitation--are Jim and Cindy really crazy after all?

I realize that playing up this theme even more would have made the film very different than it was, but it was here that I saw real potential, here in this hesitation between reality and fantasy.  Making the film The Odd Life of Jim and Cindy Green would have enabled the film to explore the issues it actually seems to be interested in, focus its audience more effectively, and really delve into the question of how to deal with the grief and disappointment of infertility.  While not the light-hearted, family-friendly fare that the movie currently is, this film would have been one definitely worth watching.

By Jen Miller