There’s very little doubt in my mind that The Odd Life of Timothy Green was coming from a place a genuinely good intentions, but to put it quite bluntly, writer-director Peter Hedges (working from a story written by Ahmet Zappa) has crafted an odd duck of a film that’s trying so desperately to be inspirational that it turns out to be cheesy at best and downright creepy and off putting and worst. It’s no fault of the cast or crew persay because they seem to be acting in an authentic fashion, but this project was something that definitely went awry in the writing stages.
In the pencil producing capital of the world, Stanleyville, a factory foreman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Jennifer Garner) have been trying to desperately conceive a son to no avail. Out of options, they decide to spend a night drinking wine and daydreaming about the attributes of what their biological child would be like before burying the slips of paper in the front yard. Later that night following a magical storm, a young boy named Timothy (CJ Green) emerges from the ground claiming to be their son, and while he indeed conforms to everything the couple wanted in a child, he also has unprunable leaves protruding from his legs. The previously childless couple now has to learn how to deal with their odd and kindly new family member on the fly, not knowing that the young man has a secret he’s not telling his parents.
As parents on screen, Edgerton and Garner feel realistic and are giving an effort to seem kind, nurturing, and a bit scared by their own trial by fire, but as they are written, these are character so deeply neurotic and irreversibly messed up that they really should seek psychological help regardless of them having some sort of magical kid that just came from out of nowhere. The fantastical element is creepily at odds with a subtextual feeling that the parents are wholly unfit and forcing themselves to be grateful at this new miracle. It’s not the fault of the leads, but it’s just how they are written. As Timothy, CJ Green definitely steals the show with a display of soulfulness and charm that makes the more cloying elements of the film easier to swallow, but the character’s appearance and what happens to him at the film’s climax is so overblown that it looks like it came straight from a Japanese horror film. It’s a creepy musical cue away from turning everything into an entirely different movie.
This isn’t to mention the film’s wealth of side characters whose lives Timothy has to touch that are straight out of a Frank Capra film, but who have nothing interesting, insightful, or different to say. There’s Edgerton’s estranged father (David Morse) who always abandons his son and grandson, but who will actually go all Billy Madison on a group of kids with a dodgeball for no good reason. There’s the weasely, uptight pencil pushing pencil pusher (Ron Livingston) and his dour mother (Diane Weist) who want to close the plant and who delight in making Timothy’s parents’ lives a living hell. There’s the soccer coach (Common) who refuses to give Timothy a chance. There’s the young girl who thinks she’s the same as Timothy because she has an obviously large birthmark. These are all archetypes from a typical small town film who get to say lines like “I never thought I would hear that laugh again” before staring off meaningfully into space. They get the kind of incredibly stilted dialogue that sounds inspirational when trying to reassure a friend in some profound way, but that becomes grating when strung together over an hour and forty-five minutes.
Hedges obviously and quite desperately at times wants to make a Capra styled small town epic about being different, replete with town hall meetings to save the plant with speeches from people who have no business being at the meeting. It’s going for an earnest sense of corniness, but instead it becomes a caricature of itself. It’s like being force fed by someone who thinks every word in the film is inspirational when it’s really not saying anything new at all. The cast understands the tone, but it’s never apparent that Hedges truly gets it, and given his past filmography (Pieces of April, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dan in Real Life) it makes sense that sentimentality wouldn’t exactly be his strong point. The darker revelations and psychological implications in the film, especially in the climax, are constantly at war with the feel good movie it obviously wants to be. Technically speaking, it’s a mess, but it’s a mess made with a good heart.