A young couple watches through the window of an old brick building as red and golden leaves fall gently to the ground before they’re called into a conference room to meet with a pair of adoption officials puzzled by the couple’s paperwork. For a question about what makes them qualified to adopt a child, Jim and Cindy Green have written just one word — Timothy. The officials aren’t pleased, but tell the couple they’ve got a certain allotment of time that they’re free to use as they please. So begins the tale of the boy at the heart of Disney’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”
Timothy’s story is told through a series of flashbacks, starting with the doctor’s appointment that brings devastating news. The Greens will never be biological parents to a child. Cindy cries once they get home, then announces that they’re moving on. But Jim can’t go there. He pulls a small notepad from his pocket as they sip red wine together on the couch, and soon the couple is imagining the child they’ll have one day — writing each trait on a different piece of paper, then gathering them all together and placing them in a small wooden box. Together they bury the box in their garden before going to bed.
They’re awakened by a thunderous storm and a child covered in mud who nonchalantly shares that he’s come from the garden. His name is Timothy, he tells them, and they’re his mom and dad. Soon he’s whisked off to the tub for a bath and a fresh start. After spotting crisp green ivy growing around Timothy’s ankles, the Greens worry others will tease him for being different. They introduce Timothy to the long socks that’ll become his trademark before relatives arrive for a potluck and the Greens introduce Timothy as their newly adopted son. Timothy’s oddities become readily apparent, but it’s clear that those whose family tree he now shares have a few oddities of their own.
The Greens’ world is populated by people most viewers will recognize. The parent who proffers judgement instead of unconditional love. The boss who delegates the dirty work while taking credit for others’ ideas. The folks who consider childrearing a competitive sport. The coach who thinks winning trumps finding joy in the game. The kids who delight in tormenting new classmates. But there is also a girl named Joni (Odeya Rush), who changes Timothy’s life with a maraschino cherry, a bicycle and a grand work of art. They’ve got being different in common, but several other things as well: an appreciation for nature, a love for making things, a calm inner spirit and the shared understanding that change is inevitable. The film’s most beautiful moments are those they share together — in a school stairwell, at the bottom of a swimming pool, within a lush forest.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is Ahmet Zappa’s story transformed into a screenplay by Peter Hedges, who also directs the movie. It was filmed in Georgia, and cinematography by John Toll makes you feel throughout the film like you’re biting into a sweet, perfectly ripe peach and relishing the sensation of juice running down your chin. It’s a visually stunning work, especially during early scenes filled with tree-lined roads and factory machines processing pencils at the plant that’s in jeopardy of closing down. Jim Green works at the Stanleyville pencil factory, and Cindy at the local pencil museum. While Jennifer Garner (Cindy) and Joel Edgerton (Jim) give solid performances, their characters aren’t quite complex enough to fascinate. It’s really CJ Adams’ (Timothy) performance, and the mystery of Timothy’s falling leaves, that give the movie its magic.
Scenes that pair Timothy with terse or tender characters are especially charming. Lin-Manuel Miranda (well-known to Broadway fans for the musical “In The Heights”) plays Reggie, the town’s gifted plant man. After trying early in the film to carefully trim the ivy from Timothy’s ankles, Reggie later delivers the message that different is good. M. Emmet Walsh plays Uncle Bub, whose laughter lights up a hospital room after Timothy shares a humble sandwich joke. Dianne Wiest plays town matriarch Ms. Bernice Crudstaff, who appears malevolent to the core, but proves she’s one of the few who truly understands the power of the pencil. Pencils have erasers. People can surprise you.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is part homage to the earth, part parenting treatise, part ode to childhood innocence and part morality tale. It’s rated PG, so parental guidance is suggested, though the film has a rare and refreshing absence of violence, sexuality or crude humor. For some children, it’ll be simply the story of a boy who comes from the garden. Others will see in Timothy a way of being in the world — honest, kind and remarkably undaunted when taunted by peers.
The film’s ending is powerful and unfolds quickly, leaving little time to rummage through pockets for much-needed tissues. Those whose lives have been touched by adoption will feel especially moved. So, too, will those who’ve stumbled as parents, or struggled to forgive the parents who stumbled before them. Whether feathering a new nest, trying to replace twigs worn down over time or living with a nest that’s now empty, parents will see a little bit of themselves in ”The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”