Film is all about making us believe in the magic, the fantasies we have to leave behind once we come of age and settle into adulthood. To step in a darkened theater, though, if only for a couple of hours at a time, we have the chance to resurrect our faith in things we know can’t be true — like rich men in rubber suits fighting crime, superspies with faulty memories or in desperate need of a genetic fix to keep them razor sharp as they take down corrupt covert government programs, or the hopeful idea of Tommy Lee Jones registering a human emotion onscreen.
But sometimes a story taps into a primal human desire, a need so intrinsic that it makes belief come to life. Screenwriter (and director) Peter Hedges, working from a story conceived by Frank Zappa’s son, Ahmet, dares to make audiences hope and believe in something so real with The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
The Greens, Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim (Joel Edgerton), have seemingly exhausted all available options for them to have a child, and their desperation is palpable, although they refuse to allow it to tear them apart. Their relational foundation is solid bedrock. After what will likely be a last attempt, they spend one final night in mourning over what they realize will never be. And along the way the sorrow evolves into a final bit of wishful thinking. If they could create their perfect child, what traits would he have? They feverishly scribble notes on paper. He would have a general love of music.
The collected notes get buried in the backyard, where during the course of the night a patchy storm nourishes the seedlings and out springs young Timothy (CJ Adams), a muddy little imp with sturdy green leaves sprouting from his legs. Cindy and Jim accept this miracle and become what they’ve always dreamed they would be: wonderful parents. Quickly they realize that parenting is not about being perfect; it is more about living and loving in the moment. The traits they dared to set down on paper for their perfect child reflect their values as people and parents. The arrival of Timothy serves as a test of their faith and of their community of family and friends who encounter Timothy as well.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green, to some, will feel like a parable, a forgotten or unwritten tale of the life of Christ that has been modernized in this translation. Timothy certainly has the innocence and wonder, a human sense of love that could only come from a divine source. But it might be wiser to shift the emphasis from Timothy and the truly astonishing nature of his presence, to Cindy and Jim, because without them, and their urgent longing, there would be no Timothy.
As I sat through the screening of Timothy Green, I found myself drawn to a different story entirely, that of Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence, which focuses on the journey of a robot child who yearns to be a real human boy. The fantasy here is rooted in science and the act of creation, to produce something in our own likeness. Yet, that story also, when boiled down, is about a couple’s desire to be parents. Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards) have a son in a coma, frozen as a child, and their love is encased in ice. They seek a way to thaw it out, to share it, so they enlist the services of a robot replica of a boy that they can teach and possibly grow to love, although they quickly discard him when their son miraculously awakens.
In Timothy Green, though, the heart of the adventure resides in the journey of Cindy and Jim. Hedges has created an organic take on parenting, one that matches out times, even though it asks much more of theatergoers outside its core audience. Are we — the action-oriented, superhero-worshiping geeks, the broad comedy lovers — ready and willing to believe in something as simple as a couple whose hearts are so big they can grow children in their backyards?
Why not? Thanks to engaging performances from Garner and Edgerton, who brings real warmth and sensitivity as well as a strong and believable masculinity, I say, why not. Odder things happen all the time onscreen, right? (PG) Grade: B+
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