When I first saw the trailer for The Odd Life of Timothy Green, it seemed so quirky and original that I was surprised to learn it had a perfect Smackdown opponent waiting in semi-obscurity to face off against it. Foster, released in 2011 but only seen by a handful of people — most of them probably in London art houses — is so similar to Timothy Green in concept that I began to question the latter’s provenance. (As it turns out, Timothy is not a recast Yank version of Foster but an original script by director Peter Hedges, from a story by Ahmet Zappa, one of Frank’s kids.) Both films are gentle fairy tales that examine family relationships. Both involve children, who magically appear when they are most needed and manage to teach their troubled adoptive parents a thing or two about love and parenting. Both fathers are in jeopardy of losing their jobs, which the magical children in their lives are also able to help them address. And both are full of hokey life lessons, yet surprisingly are able to touch audiences in a genuinely heartfelt way.
In an age where most movies-for-all ages tend to be computer-animated hug-fests it’s rare to find live-action narrative dramas that are actually suitable for the whole family. Stories about the joys and hardships of being a parent seem even fewer and farther between. Both The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Foster set out to tackle this difficult subject. But how well do they manage? Is either film destined to become an instant, adoption-oriented classic, like The Blind Side? Is Foster a real gem that suffered from awful marketing, or is Timothy likely to follow it onto the scrap heap of nice tries that just didn’t quite pay off?
Two families, yearning for completion. Sometimes all they need is a good Smack.
Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) and her husband Jim (Joel Edgerton) desperately want a child. (Guess Jennifer’s kid from Juno didn’t work out.) However, when their doctor informs them they are unable to conceive, the two must deal with their shattered dreams — both individually and as a couple. In an effort to say goodbye to those dreams, the two scribble down the perfect qualities for their ideal child, such as “has a good heart” and “a Picasso with a pencil.” They put all those ideas into an old box and bury it in their garden. During the night a storm — a magical one, of course — arrives and with it, Timothy (C.J. Adams), a mysterious, mud-covered, young boy who claims to be their son.
Soon, the shock of his mystical arrival wears off and the Greens realize he is indeed the living, breathing embodiment of their dream child. They must learn to parent this decidedly odd youngster, all the while dealing with the dramas of a failing economy, eccentric relatives and judgmental neighbors. As Jim and Cindy navigate the rocky terrain of new and unusually sudden parenthood, their magical child affects the whole town.
On the surface, everything is perfect for the Marshalls. They have a beautiful home and good jobs. Zooey (Toni Collette) owns a children’s bookstore (yes, this must be fiction if her store hasn’t been swallowed up or destroyed by Amazon), and Alec (Ioan Gruffudd) runs the toy company left to him by his father. However, cracks have appeared in their once-perfect life: Two years earlier, their young son was killed in a freak car accident, and as a result, their marriage is in serious trouble and Alec’s company is in dire straits.
Amid the turmoil, the couple considers having another child. When their doctor tells them they are unable to do so, Zooey decides they should adopt. They visit a foster agency, where they are told it could take years to be matched with a child. However, only a day later, Eli (Maurice Cole), a precocious seven-year-old boy shows up unexpectedly on their doorstep, claiming to have been sent by the foster agency. Dressed in a suit, tie and fedora, Eli is wise beyond his years and slowly helps the Marshalls heal both in love and in business.
In Foster, Collette and Gruffudd are convincing as parents torn apart by grief, two people just trying to hold their relationship together. Collette is marvelous as always, this time using a credible Scottish accent (though why her character is Scottish and not English is never explained). Gruffudd is a little less believable in his portrayal of Alec, but that may be more writer/director Jonathan Newman’s fault than Gruffudd’s. One moment, Alec is wary of this little stranger in his house, not sure if he even wants to foster a child, and the next, they’re having bonding adventures together. As seven-year-old Eli, Maurice Cole does an excellent job as a child who speaks like an adult, prefers CNN to cartoons and War and Peace to Curious George, and believes a man should always wear a tie and blazer.
C.J. Adams, too, gives an admirable performance as Timothy Green. Writer-director Hedges obviously has a facility for creating unique, multi-dimensional family dynamics, which he displayed among other places in his script for About a Boy, coincidentally co-starring Foster’s Collette. Here, his Timothy is sweet, endearing and convincing as the child his astounded parents wished for. Garner and Edgerton have a sympatico on-screen chemistry. They are entirely believable as the eager new parents who want to do everything right for their miraculous child, and who want to spare Timothy all the hardships they endured in their own childhoods. Of course, their desire to be the perfect parents causes problems of its own, which leads to many humorous — if not thigh-slappingly hilarious — moments. The rest of the cast is composed of such likable and reliable performers as Dianne Weist and the rapper, Common.
Of the two contenders, Timothy Green delivers more humor and more genuinely light moments. It also seems to be the more plausible of the two stories — well, as plausible as “magical children” stories go. However, its credibility is tested somewhat by the fact that no one in the Greens’ small town seems to find it odd that the childless couple has obtained a young son literally overnight. But, I guess if you can believe that a 10-year-old boy can magically appear from a garden bed with leaves sprouting from his ankles, then you can believe anything.
Both Timothy Green and Foster are charming and likable films, though neither will go down in history as a “family classic.” Foster may be a little tougher to embrace, because it deals with the death of a child and the impact that tragedy has on the parents’ relationship. Timothy Green, on the other hand, is a squeaky-clean modern fairy tale that will likely entertain moviegoers of all ages — especially those looking for a break from a summer movie season filled with so-so remakes of earlier mediocre potboilers and comic book heroes come to cinematic life. Though both films are occasionally sweet to the point of being saccharine, one of them has less melodrama and more humor and heart, and it’s our winner, The Odd Life of Timothy Green.