Thursday, August 16, 2012

Magical Thinking: THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN

It’s not always promising when a movie starts with the central characters sitting down and saying that their story might be hard to believe. That’s what happens in the opening scene of The Odd Life of Timothy Green, when the Greens, a just-south-of-middle-aged couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), sit down across a conference table from an incredibly patient adoption official (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and begin to tell their tale. We go back about a year to find them reacting understandably sorrowfully to the news that they will be unable to conceive a child. That night, they channel this type of mourning into an activity. They write down dream attributes for their child, place the list in a box, and bury it in the garden behind their picturesque small-town-Americana home. That night, between a magical thunderclap and the rain falling upwards, something emerges from their garden. Not only that, it gets in their house. Needless to say, they’re a little confused when confronted with a muddy little boy (CJ Adams) who calls himself Timothy and has a handful of healthy, green leaves growing out of his ankles.

Back in the framing device, the adoption official doesn’t quite believe them, but since there’s still most of the running time to go, she allows them to continue telling their story. Happy to have the chance, the Greens tell all about their time with this son, a precocious 10-year-old boy who just appeared. Writer-director Peter Hedges specializes in films about families and, though this one’s not as good as his Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life, it’s ultimately a very quiet, very low-key little movie about how a child can change a family dynamic, sometimes for the better. The Greens casually accept Timothy into their lives, introducing him to their family as a “sudden, miraculous” son. The family members, for their part, react to the child in much the same way that they’ve responded to his parents. Garner’s high-strung perfectionist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is skeptical, but their loving, elderly Aunt and Uncle (Lois Smith and M. Emmet Walsh) take to him write away. Meanwhile, Edgerton’s distant dad (David Morse) is standoffish and hard to connect with. In these ways, the film is a little allegory about how dealing with children can be a way for people to relive or reject the ways they’ve been treated in the past.

Hedges’s film has all the simple force of a thin storybook of magical thinking. It works on its own off-handedly bizarre terms, but the extent to which it works on you will completely depend on how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. I found myself holding the film at arm’s length for a good long while. It’s so intent on pushing emotional buttons. Here’s where the boy goes to visit a sweet old man in the hospital. Here’s where the boy interacts with the stuffy businesswoman (Dianne Wiest), the interesting, slightly older girl (Odeya Rush), the frustrated soccer coach (Common), or the local pencil factory foreman (Ron Livingston). Each scene has a clear thematic or plot point. Each moment of uplift or mysterious, mystical mumbo jumbo is scored to an insistent piano-heavy score that over-underlines the intended emotion. And that kid, he goes around behaving vaguely childlike and slightly alien, bright and quick-witted on the one hand and a total blank slate on the other, while his parents try their hardest to be parents to him. Even though they make mistakes, they really aren’t mistakes because it’ll still be okay in the end. It’s a twinkly-eyed wishful-thinking version of parenting.

By the end, I was surprised that I was more or less okay with all of that. It’s not exactly The Boy with Green Hair or anything, but it’s still pretty hokey. Still, the movie is so straight-faced and earnest about its mildly perplexing fantasy conceit, so insistent in its magical-child-provokes-the-best-out-of-people plotlines even when they dead-end or remain half-formed. By the movie’s final moments, which I won’t spoil here, I was sort of happy with it and glad I saw it. It’s not a total waste of time. This is a harmless, gimmicky movie that has a pretty terrific cast of character actors lending weight to what is a sweet, if difficult to warm up to, mild fantasy. I get that it’s a tough sell. I’m not exactly sold on the whole thing myself and if you’re one to scoff at the very idea of earnestness I’d advise you to stay far away. Is it corny? Are you kidding? It’s off the cob. But for families looking for a fairly gentle matinee with some well-intended lessons about accepting people, standing by your family, telling the truth, and other such things, it might be just the late-summer movie of choice.

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