Environmental parable, commentary on the economy, or whimsical fantasy . . . it’s hard to pin down The Odd Life of Timothy Green to one category. The correct answer, I suppose, would be “all of the above.” The film, directed by Peter Hedges, is a charming fantasy with elements of comedy and drama set in a believable universe—a small town like so many other small towns, suffering the effects of a widespread economic downturn as their factory, the lifeblood of the community, prepares to close. At the outset of the film, a montage is shown depicting scenes of everyday town life; and signs exhorting water conservation in the face of an impending drought show that the weather is just as hopeless as the town’s spirit.
But at its heart, Odd Life is a film about how buried dreams can sometimes sprout into new hope . . . literally.
Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) are a 30-something married couple who live in Stanleyville, “Pencil capital of the world.” He works in the pencil factory as a quality-control tester; she works in the museum dedicated to the founder of the factory and Stanleyville itself. They are a couple of small-town folk who love the small town they live in and want nothing more than to start their own family. The problem is, they can’t.
At the very beginning of the film, they are shown in an adoption office, presenting their case to a pair of adoption officials (one of them played by Shohreh Agdashloo), explaining why they are fit to be parents. Their application form was apparently scant enough to warrant questions, and they explain that they wanted a chance to tell their story in person. The film then goes into a flashback, with voiceovers from both of them overlapping as they tell the story.
You see them in a doctor’s office, being told by their very sympathetic doctor (Rhoda Griffis) that despite their best efforts, they can never conceive a child naturally. On their way home their first reaction is to grieve—“We’ll get a puppy,” Cindy says, before dissolving into tears again and exclaiming, “I don’t want a puppy!”—then Cindy decides they will move on. But Jim, bearing the pain of disappointment as much as or even more than Cindy, isn’t ready to move on just yet. He convinces Cindy that just for one more night, they will have hope for a child. On sheets of notebook paper, they begin to write out attributes their child would have possessed, including qualities from both of them.
“Picasso with a pencil.” “Honest to a fault!” “Love and be loved.” “A glass-half-full person.”
When they’re done, they take the pieces of paper and place them in a little wooden box, something like a miniature hope chest, and bury it in the back garden. Later that night, a sudden, localized storm passes through the town—and by localized, I mean the rain falls solely on the Green’s property, watering the garden they have just buried all their hopes in; and then disappears as suddenly as it appeared.
When Jim wakes up in the middle of the night to close the back door, apparently blown open by the storm, he and Cindy make an astounding discovery. A little boy, covered in dirt, has crept into their house and is sitting on the floor of the room they had set aside for a child before their hopes were dashed.
They assume he’s a runaway, until he introduces himself.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m Timothy.”
“Fifty-four girl names on the list and only one boy name,” Cindy whispers incredulously to Jim. “. . . Timothy.”
When he insists on calling them Mom and Dad, they are floored and quickly realize what has happened. Somehow their dream child, who existed only on paper, has come to life in front of them. What’s more, according to him, he appears to have grown from the garden, the manifestation of their hopes sprouted to life . . . with green leaves twining around his ankles to prove it.
Thus begins an unlikely, yet emotionally uplifting story of how one child (played masterfully by CJ Adams) becomes an everyday miracle; not just to the couple who so desperately wanted to be parents, but in a classic ripple effect his impact touches the lives of their family and friends, and extends to encompass the entire town.
The film wastes no time pulling you in with authentic-feeling emotions, with a quickly established affinity for the central characters, and an almost aggressive finger-pointing at the villains of the piece, namely Jim’s obnoxious boss, Franklin Crudstaff (Ron Livingston), whose father owns the factory; Cindy’s ice queen of a manager (Dianne Wiest); Jim’s disapproving father, James “Big Jim” Green Sr. (David Morse); and Cindy’s overly-smug sister, Brenda (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Structured like one long flashback, the film is peppered with occasional cutbacks to the present-day scene in the adoption office, allowing the audience to register the increasingly disbelieving gazes of the two adoption officials.
In Odd Life the motifs of environmental degradation, economic uncertainty, and creeping despair are everywhere; some more subtle than others, but present nonetheless. From the childlessness of the central couple, to the slow grinding down of the town’s main employer, the factory, the film dives in at a point when change is desperately needed. This change appears in the form of Timothy Green, who takes the oddness of his existence so much for granted that the audience’s suspension of disbelief occurs sooner than you can ask, “But where did he come from?”
A humorous scene addresses that very question. When meeting the children of Cindy’s relatives for the first time, he is told not to draw attention to the fact that he came from the garden, whereas most other kids came via other means.
“So you all came from your mom’s tummies?” he asks, looking slightly bemused. “How was that?”
His infectious presence is soon noticed by everyone, and not just because of how suddenly he appeared in the Green’s lives. In particular, one girl—the reclusive, nature-loving Joni (Odeya Rush)—is drawn to him, and when one day she pulls down the socks he wears to hide the leaves growing from his legs, rather than being put off, she is even more drawn to him. They become friends, and even more than that, in a situation that straddles the boundary—at times uncomfortably—between the innocence of childhood infatuation and the seriousness of first love. His parents, especially Cindy, are worried that it is too soon for him to feel this way, until they remember that one of the attributes on their list was that he would “love and be loved.”
But, in a plot twist that echoes the warnings of environmentalists everywhere, it is revealed that Timothy isn’t going to be around forever, something that becomes apparent when his leaves begin to fall off, one by one. This sense of foreboding gives the film a feeling of urgency, a silent countdown where Timothy’s guileless yet impactful effect on the fractured relationships around him begins to seem like his purpose for existing. Further, like a seedpod that bursts and scatters its burden to the wind, Timothy’s immediate impact ends up affecting every aspect of the townspeople’s lives.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green is both a cautionary tale and a hopeful, optimistic story. Even if the idea of a child born from the garden soil out of his parents’ wishes sits squarely in the realm of fantasy, there is a real world application. It seems to say, things may look impossible or dire, but sometimes all it takes is a glance down a different path; a leap of faith into a new way of doing things which can yield a harvest of re-awakened dreams.
Watch the trailer for The Odd Life of Timothy Green here.