‘The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a “magic child” movie — one of those fables about a Zen tot who appears out of nowhere and teaches the saggy, baggy grown-ups the errors of their ways. It’s the sort of thing you’ll either find enchanting or an excellent reason to reach for the Scotch. As these things go — and it goes pretty much as expected — the movie’s strained but bearable, and I can see it playing well to older children, who will have plenty of questions afterward, some of which you may even be able to answer. It’s a Disney project, though, and, as with Tinker Bell, you’ll really have to believe if you want to get this baby off the ground.
The story’s framed by scenes of young marrieds Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) sitting in the offices of an adoption agency, telling their story to an initially skeptical Shohreh Aghdashloo. Unable to conceive a child of their own, the couple spent a tipsy night writing down all the qualities of their impossible son and burying it in a box out back. Cue a magic rainstorm and the spontaneous generation of Timothy (CJ Adams), a muddy, serene 10-year-old with leaves growing out of his shins.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” takes place in a small-town America where folks still work at the local pencil factory and no one seriously questions the arrival of an undocumented child. Cindy and Jim fret about Timothy fitting in at school and on the soccer field — he has a habit of stopping what he’s doing and raising his arms to the sun for a little photosynthesis — but they needn’t worry, really, because he’s a metaphor rather than a real boy. No tantrums, no self-doubt, eats his vegetables. The Rhode Island-raised Adams, who has a sideways smile the movie tends to lean on, is likably mellow and he doesn’t oversell his cuteness.
After a while — after Timothy has thoroughly confused the school bullies and created lush Andy Goldsworthy-style sculptures in the woods with his spooky friend Joni (Odeya Rush) — you realize the movie isn’t about him at all. It’s about the fears and neuroses of his parents and, by extension, all modern parents. It’s about helicoptering and meddling and the foolish attempt to ensure that our kids’ childhoods will be safer than our own. Garner’s Cindy gratingly indulges her over-protectiveness and a rivalry with her officious sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), while Jim is determined to become a better dad than his own father, an over-competitive jerk played by David Morse.
(Spoiler alert for parents who want to know if Timothy dies horribly like Haley Joel Osment did in “Pay It Forward.” No, but his leaves turn brown and fall off and eventually he has to “go away.” Good luck explaining that on the drive home.)
All sorts of unexpected faces pop up in the film: Dianne Wiest as the frosty town matriarch, Common as a soccer coach, Ron Livingston as the spineless factory manager, M. Emmett Walsh as Uncle Bub. The film’s based on a story by Ahmet Zappa — Frank’s son — and directed by Peter Hedges, who wrote a good script from his novel “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” two decades ago and has been moving in a direction of earnest sentimentality ever since. “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” feels like it was put together by people who’ve examined their own parenting techniques and come to the conclusion that our children will be fine if we just back the heck off.
Duly noted, but that’s easy to say when you have a magic plant-boy who’s in touch with the universe. “Timothy Green” asks as much of its audience as it does of its characters — it’s beyond me why Aghdashloo’s character doesn’t throw the couple out as soon as they admit they grew their son in the backyard — but parents might be forgiven for coming out of the movie wondering where they can get one of those for themselves.