Released at the tail end of the 2012 summer season, when audiences likely were experiencing blockbuster fatigue, Peter Hedges’ family fantasy The Odd Life of Timothy Green
earned the kind of surprised raves that immediately put it on one’s radar. You know, people you trust say, “I didn’t expect much, but man, it was really good.”
I wonder what movie they were watching.
Don’t get me wrong: Timothy Green isn’t a travesty. It’s a marginally sweet film with a handful of noteworthy messages that bear repeating with your kids. But the package is coated in an unhealthy layer of cinematic cheese. The schmaltz takes the wind out of the movie’s sails. You’ll appreciate what Hedges is trying to do, but you’ll roll your eyes at some of the ways that he struggles to get there.
But it’s always worth dissecting a Disney family film as the library continues to hit DVD, so let’s grow leaves on our feet, invent a new pencil, plant a box of wishes in the garden, and figure out when you can watch The Odd Life of Timothy Green with your kids.
Red Flags: Where do babies come from, exactly?
Timothy Green comes to us from an original concept by Ahmet Zappa about a young(ish) couple struggling to have a baby. Disappointed by yet another report that a pregnancy didn’t take, the couple thinks outside of the box one evening when they realize they’ve reached the end of their rope.
In a wine-induced fit of inspiration, Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) write down all of the qualities they’d love to have in a child. Honesty. A sense of humor. An athlete, capable of scoring the winning goal. You know, the works. They collect these musings and bury them in a box in the backyard garden. Lo and behold, the next morning, a young boy (C.J. Adams) – covered in mud, and with leaves attached to his feet – appears in their country home, claiming to be their son.
Right about here, the first few questions started to fly. Our sons, age eight and four, started asking why a couple would have trouble having a baby. Our oldest understood that children can’t actually be grown in soil like vegetables, but the fantasy element of Timothy’s “birth” had our youngest scratching his head.
(As a side note, our oldest, P.J., recently said to me while we were driving in a car that it must be difficult to be a girl. When I asked why, he said, “Because when you have a baby, they reach down your throat and pull the baby out through your mouth.” I kind of corrected him, but yeah, he’s not ready for that conversation just yet.)
Thankfully, the film moves on to more palatable plot developments. Timothy befriends a cute, quiet girl named Joni (Odeya Rush), who stands up for the odd kid when bullies push him around. Anytime the film suggested a possible romance between the open-hearted children, my boys still groaned and booed. Hilarious.
Timothy eventually tries out for the local soccer team… but even that storyline has such a dubious end. Jim, it turns out, has a contentious relationship with his estranged father (David Morse), a competitive man who’d rather beat Timothy at dodgeball than ask where this mysterious kid actually came from. Later in the film, when Timothy actually starts performing on the soccer field, Jim callously rubs his son’s successes in his father’s face ON THE SIDELINES OF THE GAME! It was the least appropriate moment for a son to confront his cold-hearted father, but Timothy Green isn’t interested in subtle character development.
The interesting thing about Timothy Green is that, for once in their young lives, my boys were ahead of the film’s progressions. Normally, they’re surprised by plot developments that savvy movie audiences likely see coming. As we screened Hedges’ film, P.J. (our oldest) turned to me halfway through and said, “Timothy’s going to die, right?” Like, this plot development was so obviously telegraphed that even an eight-year-old could see it coming. (The inclusion of a framing device where Cindy and Jim, clearly still childless, tell their story to a skeptical adoption agent is a dead giveaway.)
These elements, particularly in a fantasy, tend to fly over my kids’ heads. With Timothy Green, they stood out like sore, green thumbs.
Green Lights: "Please don't ask about my leaves."
And yet, the overwhelming family-unit mojo that swirls through Timothy Green makes it worth a watch (barely) with your kids in tow.
Any film that focuses on parents going an extra mile to attain a child can open up engaging dialogue between you and your own kids. Garner and Edgerton are a sympathetic couple who open their home to this unique boy, and wrestle with some of the social issues parents and kids might encounter on a regular basis. Things get a little out of hand – even by fantasy standards – when Timothy’s helping his dad design a new pencil (it’s too convoluted to explain here) and single-handedly defending the town from a deceitful corporate jerk. But overall, there are shared experiences worth reliving in Timothy Green.
My boys, after Timothy Green, wanted to relive their own memories of coming home from the hospital… not coming in from the garden. We even broke out pics of our youngest, Brendan, and his first days in our home. Any excuse to revive those memories is OK in my book.
Normally we use the When Can I Watch column to talk about films that might be a challenge for young kids, setting an “appropriate” age for your sons and daughters to potentially dig into mature material.
Timothy Green might be the first time we’ve come upon a movie that trends in the opposite direction. Your kids, depending on their age, might be too old for the sweet-toothed fantasy spun by Peter Hedges and his cast. My eight-year-old wasn’t engaged by Timothy Green, which I think appealed more to my wife and her sentimental side. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film. It’s just softer than you might have guessed.
There’s no real age limit on Green, though I think kids ages five to eight will get the most out of it, while kids nine and up will grow tired of the film quicker than most. And as always, if you pop the DVD in with your family, be sure to let me know how it goes.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.