What Experience Do You Have?
“What makes you qualified?” asks Ms. Onat (Shohreh Aghdashloo), gazing across a desk at a couple hoping to adopt a child through her agency. Both Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim (Joel Edgerton) Green appear surprised to hear the question, and so she asks it in another way: “What experience do you have?”
It seems an odd way to begin an interview for prospective adoptive parents; after all, first time parents rarely have “experience” in the field. It’s also a trite way to begin The Odd Life of Timothy Green, as it initiates the extended flashback that will comprise the movie, which is full of heartache and joys, drama and some spastic comedy, as well as a cast of eccentric characters whose job it is to test Cindy and Jim. That Ms. Onat sits in judgment, waiting to be impressed or moved or maybe just done with the interview, her reactions—most often revealed in standard medium close-ups, and ranging from vague concern to vaguer displeasure—become a repeated focus for the Greens and for you too.
That’s not to say that Ms. Onat helps the Greens to refine or make sense of or even abbreviate the lengthy tale they narrate (though you might hope for any of these). Rather, it means that the anxiety Cindy and Jim feel over being tested (never a pleasant feeling) is more or less allotted to you as well. That is, the movie provokes tension throughout, and not in a good way.
Jim and Carol’s story is at once mundane and creepy-cute, wound up around the core fact of the child Timothy (CJ Adams). He arrives following a thunderstorm out of their garden, with a tediously precious affect and magical leaves growing from his legs. Apparently, he’s conjured from their desires, as, pre-adoption agency application, the Greens have been lamenting their inability to conceive and listing their ideal child’s “qualities” (that is, rather unoriginally, he or she would be smart, athletic, generous, artistic, etc.). Timothy crawls from the ground and appears before them, muddy and pert.
They guess where he’s from and, unalarmed, pass him off to their friends and family as their own child.
This community is a function of the place were they all live, Stanleyville, “The Pencil Capital of the World.” Here Jim works in the pencil factory and Cindy leads tours at the pencil museum. The pencil business provides something like an overbearing metaphor for cultural (if not precisely technological) progress as compared to nostalgic fantasy, the film finding ways to commend unreal versions of both. The Greens themselves are decidedly generic and out-of-date, eager-to-please parents-to-be, burdened with neuroses emerging from their own childhoods, conveniently incarnated by older folks who are either exceptionally wise or exceptionally oppressive.
Jim’s background is embodied by his dad, the awesomely judgmental James, Sr. (David Morse), who never spent time with his son and now (in the son’s eyes) disapproves of everything he does or says. No surprise, Jim reads his dad’s grumping over Timothy’s unsocialized behaviors—he doesn’t know how to play soccer, he stands with his face upturned to the sun, he enchants everyone—as continued condemnation of him, the perpetually fearful boy Jim.
For her part, Cindy is cowed by her imperious boss at the museum (Dianne Wiest), who, posing for a portrait for Timothy, will occasion the revelation of his “artistic” genius, much as Common, playing the soccer coach, will expose his “athletic” brilliance. More urgently (or at least more frantically), Cindy is caught up in a cycle of competition with her sister, married name Brenda Best (ouch!), played by the infinitely patient Rosemary DeWitt. Brenda’s trajectory has been painfully picture-perfect, such that she’s now got a large house and a lawn, soccer- and music-playing kids, and apparently a great husband, Bart (Patrick Brouder), though he barely registers here.
As Jim and Cindy struggle with what they understand (and tell each other) to be irrational responses to their ever-present backgrounds, they find some occasional solace in her wonderfully big-hearted parent-figures, Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh) and Aunt Mel (Lois Smith), who raised the sisters when their parents died. Dispensing wisdom and delivering an Important Life Lesson when convenient, they comprehend Timothy’s wondrousness before anyone else, soon followed by his classmate Joni (Odeya Rush), whose non-whiteness may or may not play a part of her own outsider status at school. This child, whom we know to be lovely, warm, and supportive of Timothy, is offered as an unconvincing red herring for Jim and Cindy, that is, a lesson to be learned concerning preconceptions based on past experiences and also misapprehensions based on appearance (parents, don’t do this at home).
As Joni rides her bike through several scenes’ backgrounds or spends glorious afternoons gamboling in the woods with Timothy, she also underscores the film’s premise, that Jim and Cindy’s fumbling through the experience of speed-raising a strange child who sprouted from their garden encapsulates What Parents Do. It’s a premise that might have yielded a movie for children who feel strange—which is to say, most of them/us at some time or another. Instead, it has made for this cumbersome, unfocused, uncharming series of episodes, where the target audience appears to be parents or maybe prospective parents, and not children at all.
This number includes those viewers who might feel tested and made anxious by Ms. Onat, the stereotypical authority figure who might have been conjured in another ritual of list-making and thuunderstorming, whose qualities might include being patient, discerning, and right. In other words, her role is both too odd and not odd enough.