When traditional fertility tricks don’t work, a childless couple bury their hopes in the backyard, and up sprouts a son in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” a sweet, modestly budgeted family offering that reminds what Disney stood for before adopting its franchise-driven strategy. With just the right dose of magic and no shortage of sentiment, this inspirational parenting tale from writer-director Peter Hedges plays like “Mary Poppins” in reverse, where the caregivers are the constant and a very special kid breezes into their lives for just one season. By costing less, the film needn’t break B.O. records to thrive.
Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner play Jim and Cindy Green, and by the look of their genes, the couple would make beautiful babies together. But nature has other plans. Having invested a small fortune in medical solutions, they finally decide to give up on parenthood but spend one last evening imagining what their perfect child might be: “honest to a fault,” “Picasso with a pencil,” “score the winning goal” and so on.
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That point about the pencil is especially important. The Greens live in small-town Stanleyville, “pencil capital of the world.” Jim works at the local pencil factory, where he handles quality control on the union-run assembly line, while Cindy spends her days serving as a docent at the pencil museum. The economy has been hard on the pencil business, which is no surprise, since times are tough for stone tablets, too. According to Jim, “with a pencil, anything is possible,” and maybe that’s the magic ingredient that allows those traits, scribbled in old-fashioned No. 2 graphite and then buried among Cindy’s prized vegetables, to transform overnight into a 10-year-old boy (CJ Adams).
Miraculously, no one in Stanleyville seems to question Timothy’s arrival, and as soon as he shows up, he starts to change the lives of the people around him. Jim’s dad (David Morse), who was never there for him, shows up for Timothy’s soccer games, and Cindy’s severe boss (Dianne Wiest) surprises her staff by asking the boy to draw her portrait. (Lucky for her, the wish-granters weren’t too literal about the Picasso thing.) At school, Timothy takes a shine to a female classmate, Joni (Odeya Rush), who identifies with the runty boy’s outsider status and provides the pic’s most touching subplot.
Hedges frames the story by showing Jim and Cindy at an adoption interview with an incredulous auditor (Shohreh Aghdashloo). As they relate the story of how they found — and subsequently lost — their 10-year-old son, the auditor’s wide-eyed reactions remind just how enchanted the whole thing must seem to an outsider. Propelled by Geoff Zanelli’s stirring score, which blends folk instruments with human voices and natural sounds, Hedges’ treatment of the supernatural is easy to accept, and these interruptions help to put the pic’s magical realism in perspective.
Unusually for a kidpic, this one unfolds primarily from the adults’ perspective, though Timothy is the character everyone will remember most. As played by Adams, the boy appears near-to-bursting with the joy of being alive, unperturbed by teasing or disappointment or any of the setbacks that make childhood so difficult on real kids.
Of course, Timothy isn’t like the other boys at school. He often stands with arms outstretched and eyes closed, absorbing the sun’s rays, and in lieu of a belly button, he has green leaves sprouting from his ankles. They can’t be pruned, but unbeknownst to his parents (who order Timothy to wear socks at all times lest his classmates make fun of him for being different), they turn brown and fall off as the year progresses. This brewing sense that the boy is not theirs to keep supplies much of the film’s dramatic tension.
Leaves, like pencils, serve as an elegant motif throughout the film, playing an important role in how the town solves the local employment crisis. But mostly, they signify growth, and it’s encouraging to see a story in which adults, so confident of what they think they want, are given so much room to improve. Garner and Edgerton are both immensely likable, and yet, they bicker and behave in childish ways, learning from Timothy what it means to be a parent. It takes a special sensibility to make people look at something as simple as leaves — and life — in a new way. Hedges accomplishes that with a heartfelt story, once again, about a boy.