“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is an achingly sweet parent-and-child tearjerker that’s every bit as precious as its title.
But it’s an oddly emotion-free fantasy, a film that strains to find the magic, joy and heartbreak in a story manufactured with those traits in mind.
Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) play the Greens, a small-town couple who long to have a child of their own. They’ve hit the end of the road, medically, for accomplishing that. In tears, Cindy Green declares “We’re moving on.” And husband Jim takes that one step further. They’ll write the baby-they-never-had’s traits on slips of paper.
A good-hearted child, a “glass half-full” sort of kid. “Honest to a fault.”
Musical? “Definitely! Our kid will rock!”
Artistic? “Picasso with a pencil.”
That’s important, because they live in Stanleyville, “America’s pencil capital.” Jim works at the ancient pencil works, and Cindy works in the pencil capital museum.
The Greens bury the slips of paper in a box in their garden. And one dark and stormy night, a 10-year-old boy (CJ Adams) pops out of the Earth, calls them “Mom” and “Dad,” and lives up to every trait they gave him. Oddly, Timothy Green has leaves growing out of his calves and feet.
The parents react to this stunning turn of events with conflicted feelings of science (they try to snip off the leaves) and faith. They immediately cover up his origins and plop him into school. And they get him lots of long athletic socks, because they want him to be treated as “a normal kid.” And children can be cruel.
The film’s charm, romance, comedy and heartache come from Timothy’s naive, open-hearted efforts to fit in, to live up to the credo his parents wrote for him. He melts the hearts of older relatives (M. Emmet Walsh, David Morse), wins the affections of tweenage siren Joni (Odeya Rush, a dead ringer for a young Mila Kunis) and underwhelms his soccer coach (Common), while his parents fret and fuss over him and the way he impacts their home, social and working lives.
Garner is quite good at making us connect with a character’s emotions, and if “Odd Life” has a hope of earning tears, it’s through Cindy. The rough-edged Edgerton is more earnest and eager than good as a dad with dad issues of his own (Morse plays his father). But the kid is radiant, a convincingly buoyant boy who makes innocent mistakes because he is just that — utterly innocent.
Here’s the film’s fatal flaw: The story is told in flashback, with the Greens trying to persuade an adoption counselor (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to give them another try at parenthood. Something went wrong with Timothy, but if they can just tell their incredible story to her, maybe they’ll get another shot.
Writer-director Peter Hedges (“Dan in Real Life,” “Pieces of April”) isn’t telling a story with enough magic, emotion or mystery to it to overcome that giveaway. This cumbersome device, interrupting whatever flow this “Edward Scissorhands” variation can muster (even the music sounds similar), robs the tale of the poignancy it aims for.
And without that heart, no delightful musical moments (Garner and Edgerton sing and dance), no wistful surprises built on Timothy’s pre-ordained character traits, earn anything more than a grin or a misty-eyed shrug.