'The Odd Life of Timothy Green': Too Odd and Not Odd Enough

Jim and Carol's story is at once mundane and creepy-cute, wound up around the core fact of the child Timothy, who arrives following a thunderstorm out of their garden

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Director: Peter Hedges
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Dianne Wiest, M. Emmet Walsh, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odeya Rush
Rated: PG
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-08-15 (General release)

"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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.