The grief of the infertile is so incomprehensible to those who haven’t lived it that even the most empathetic friend is likely to fail to understand the mix of pain and longing these people endure. The most charitable interpretation of the new Disney movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green would be that it is trying very hard, although unsuccessfully, to communicate a true sense of the depths of desire to parent. But whatever director Peter Hedges’ intent, the movie itself, a sentimental blend of magical realism and saccharine emotions, is oddly false. It made me want to go on a sugar cleanse.
On the day their doctor tells them it is time to stop trying to get pregnant—they’ve reached the end of the road for fertility treatments—Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) go home to bucolic Stanleyville, population 5,213, open up a bottle of wine and fill a box with notes describing their perfect child (“honest to a fault” and “a glass-half-full person”). Then they bury it in the backyard. I don’t know if their notes also included “preternaturally wise” and “even cuter than both of us,” but what crawls out of the earth in the course of the night is definitely that.
Ten-year-old Timothy (the adorable CJ Adams, who had a small part in Hedges’ last movie, Dan in Real Life) has the freckle-faced charm of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’s Elliot, plus some undefined but rather E.T.-like magical properties. He’s very in touch with nature and salutes the sun regularly. Right away he calls Cindy and Jim, Mom and Dad and seems to know them. He greets everyone, even bullies, with a sweet half-smile.
The only drawback to the Greens’ foundling foster child appears to be that he has leaves growing out of his ankles and shins. In the world’s least subtle foreshadowing, these leaves can’t be removed, but every time Timothy has a meaningful interaction with someone, he loses another leaf. All of the action takes place in autumn’s full rush of color, adding to the sense of contrivance. Winter is coming. The cold, infertile winter.
(READ: TIME’s Richard Corliss on Steve Carell in Hedge’s last film, Dan in Real Life)
Hedges uses a distracting framing device for his narrative (Ahmet Zappa gets a story credit). In the first scene Cindy and Jim are in an office recounting the story of their time with Timothy to an adoption attorney (the great Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo). They’re using it to make their case to her, but she seems disinclined to consider them viable candidates, despite their nice home and obvious financial stability. Maybe they shouldn’t have led with telling her the Timothy story; it could be construed as a little too Field of Dreams for a legal mind.
To my mind, the equanimity with which Cindy and Jim handle the whole living garden gnome situation suggests they are highly adaptable, a great asset for parenting. What with Timothy’s from-the-dirt arrival, most of us would have suspected a zombie scenario and fled the house gobbling valium as we went. But the flashbacks take any zip out of the Timothy story; we know he’s not going to be graduating from Stanleyville elementary and moving onto the middle school the instant the first leaf flutters to the floor.
When The Odd Life of Timothy Green came to an end, I still wasn’t sure what the purpose of his visit was. Cindy and Jim already knew they desperately wanted to be parents—they didn’t need a life lesson or a cruel party trick from above, or in this case, below. They hardly seem taken aback by Timothy or his insistence that he’s their son; even Cindy’s bitchy sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) doesn’t question his origins. They respond to everything he does with goofy wonder and a naïveté that grows tedious. Garner, who played child-hungry so effectively in Juno, seems to have concentrated all her performance energy into furrowing her brow. As for Edgerton, he is so bland as bland Jim that he’s barely recognizable as the actor who pummeled Tom Hardy in Warrior. Five minutes with Cal and Ellie, the animated characters who couldn’t have a baby in Up, is a thousand times more touching than two hours with Garner and Edgerton.
(READ: TIME’s review of Juno)
So what does Timothy’s visit do, other than drive home the Greens’ longing and spur them to investigate adoption, which they likely would have done anyway? He makes Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh) laugh, although from what we see of him, Uncle Bub is the kind of guy who would laugh at any knock-knock joke. A beautiful girl Timothy befriends (Odeya Rush, a dead ringer for the young Katie Holmes, who incidentally, starred in Pieces of April, Hedges’ first and still best movie) learns how to make art with leaves and twigs, Andy Goldsworthy-style. He touches the stone cold heart of Cindy’s rich boss (Dianne Wiest). Also, he provides the inspiration for Stanleyville to find its way out of an economic crisis involving its lone industry, a pencil-making business. Without Timothy, production of the bright yellow pencil, that classic symbol of the American schoolchild, would be probably be outsourced to China. He opens hearts and minds. Are you getting the message? This is a movie about old-time values, a movie with Frank Capra aspirations. But Timothy’s life, his very conception by Zappa and Hedges, is definitely more odd than wonderful. Only venture into it if you’re feeling very soft hearted.
REMEMBER: When Jennifer Garner was pregnant on Alias and in real life?