(The Odd Life of Timothy Green; 2012; Written by Peter Hedges and Ahmet Zappa; Directed by Peter Hedges; Starring Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams and Odeya Rush)
The hardest part of writing a family movie today is incarnating conflict. I’m not really sure in which of our many societal dysfunctions this problem originates. Certainly, the damned political correctness has wreaked havoc in storytelling such that nobody wants to depict anything for kids that might upset them. Further, nobody wants to create an evil character that might give off a whiff of racism, or sexism, or ageism, or classicism, or you know, the one I’m always fighting off, the bigoted disgust for brown-eyed-second generation Sicilian-post-graduated-Rhode Islandish-Emily Dickinsonianism.
So, fear has reduced most family movies today to being a bit soft without characters suffering the real devastation that would provide a catharsis of fear and pity the way stories are supposed to. Ours is a storytelling climate in which Old Yeller, never ever dying, would be “Senior” Yeller and Bambi’s mother would be presented in her golden years masticating genetically sweetened soft grass in a harmonious animal-human habitat at The Villages. (Of course, I’m exempting Pixar films from this. Their excellence always complicates sweeping generalities about the failure of storytelling in Hollywood.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green has no villain except the infertility which is its set up. (This is the second movie – with Juno – in which talented Jennifer Garner convinces us that she is desperate, desperate, nearly dying to have a baby. One more time, and Garner and her lefty husband Ben Affleck are simply going to have to declare themselves pro-life.) Once the story has finally launched (a not unpleasant, but still slow fifteen minutes into the movie), there is no real conflict except the Green’s efforts to dodge the confused appraisal of their extended family and friends. It’s a story in which two beautiful and completely sympathetic actors – Garner and Joel Edgerton - make a show of struggling against their own unbelievable fears of not being good enough parents. They are kind and gifted, loving and dutiful, connected to an amiable and solicitous community, and in possession of a fabulous Victorian farmhouse. I kept wanting to take them aside and say, “Guys, maybe our expectations are just a bit too high?” You know a story is having conflict problems when the B-story is completely resolved by having the protagonist invent a better kind of pencil. (Yes, that’s really real in the movie.)
Beyond a half-hearted father-son issue and, oh yeah, the pencil factory might close, the only real conflict in the movie has to do with a ticking clock of Timothy losing his leaves, which we intuit early on means that he will soon have to go back to being a tomato root. But he doesn’t seem particularly dismayed about that fate, so there’s no real sense of jeopardy. And no one is really in doubt that the Green’s will be amazing parents when they get the chance that we know is coming the first time we see them in the adoption agency. The lack of conflict makes Odd Life drag.
Beyond the lack of conflict, the oddest thing in the movie is the way it expects the viewers to ignore the fundamental oddness of the inciting incident in order to just go with the rest of the movie. We’ve seen lots of these impossible premise movies before – Freaky Friday, Prelude to a Kiss, Pinocchio, Big – but most of them do much better at getting us through the suspension of disbelief.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green puts us in the uncomfortable place of an adoption agency worker, played uncomfortably by the great actress, Shoreh Agdashloo, while Garner and Edgerton dump their whole crazy past year experience with a mystical child grown out of the garden, in convenient but episodic flashbacks. They have no explanation for how the boy came to be. Nor why nobody in their town or family raised any questions about the boy’s origins. They ask Timothy once how he came to crawl out of their tomato patch, but when he demurs, they never trouble the topic again. The incredulity surrounding the origin of Timothy is only trumped in the movie by the fact that Agdashlo’s character entrusts them with another child at the end. “Really?! Based on the story you’ve just heard, these people are lovely, dutiful, beautiful whackos!” Beyond just allowing the story to jump around in time, the adoption agency frame is certainly meant to provide some conflict in the story. It mainly just feels awkward and the cutaways are the hardest part to watch. Which is a dubious kind of conflict generation, I suppose.
The writer and director, Peter Hedges, knows better than a lot of the clichés and beginner mistakes that are in this movie. He brought us Gilbert Grape and the charming About a Boy, as well as the more uneven but still engaging Dan in Real Life. (Although, Pieces of April was a navel-gazing blunder. ) He’s been around the cinematic story block enough to have done better here. It made me wonder how much tinkering the project went through under the fearful supervision of paranoid producers and Disney executives. (And, yes, I know I keep adding that qualification, but recent life has taught me that no good work of art will go through Hollywood today unpunished.) And Disney has no excuse for making conflict-less twaddle. Their executives should be sentenced to watching their whole library once through before making another movie.
For me, the best part of the movie was getting to watch the big screen debut of fourteen year old Israeli actress, Odeya Rush. Odeya has “it” and eats up the screen every time she is on it, even as her character in Timothy Green is weirdly drawn and without much to do. Full disclosure is that Odeya has been cast as the lead in Mary Mother of Christ, a project on which I believe I am the co-writer. It is cool and a relief that our Mary is in the hands of an actress with “it.”
The nice things about this movie are the good performances of the talented group of actors and supporting actors, married to the fantasy vision of quaint, small town life which backdrops the story. Beyond story problems, there’s nothing objectionable in the piece, and junior high kids and their parents will find some nice moments here to enjoy together. But be prepared to lapse into the lame grin of the pleasant non-threatened filmgoer. No pain, no gain.