Friday, August 24, 2012

'Odd,' but wonderful family film

"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is the sort of heartwarming live-action Disney film that used to be the company's mainstay for decades. In recent years, modestly budgeted family comedy/dramas have been replaced with bloated, big-budgeted action extravaganzas. "Timothy Green" is both a throwback to feel-good Disney films of the past and something deeper and richer than the typical Disney fare.

Writer/director Peter Hedges' screenplay, from a story credited to Ahmet Zappa, focuses on Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) a couple who are unable to conceive a child. One evening, in an attempt to move on, they write down all the ideal attributes they'd want their kid to have. They bury this list in their garden. A magical wind, not dissimilar to the one that carried Mary Poppins, blows in and the subsequent storm brings Timothy (CJ Adams), a boy with all the qualities Cindy and Jim asked for as well as leaves growing out of his ankles.

Hedges, who wrote and directed the warm and funny "Pieces of April" and "Dan in Real Life," wrote "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and co-wrote the screen adaptation of "About a Boy," knows how to write characters and family dynamics that feel real. His characters are smart and funny without feeling overly written.

"Timothy Green" is simple and formulaic, but doesn't feel hollow in spite of a seemingly trite, silly premise. The story is framed with the Greens at an adoption agency telling the story of Timothy in hopes of being able to adopt a child. This device lets the audience know that Timothy's time is limited, which gives a poignancy to many of his scenes. Timothy is there to help his adopted parents learn to be parents.

The film is clever in the way that it delivers the Greens' various wishes of their dream child ("honest to a fault," "our kid will rock," "just once our kid scores the winning goal") in unexpected ways. Timothy is not the perfect child, that's not what Cindy and Jim wanted, but he is funny, open, friendly and ever so slightly odd.

Timothy quickly wins over Cindy Aunt Mel (Lois Smith) and Uncle Bub (M. Emmett Walsh). Jim's gruff, distant father (David Morse), Cindy's know-it-all sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Cindy's witchy boss (Diane Wiest) are tougher sells, but eventually warm to Timothy.

Timothy develops a sweet relationship with Joni (Odeya Rush), a girl who discovers his leaves, but instead of mocking him for his difference likes him for it as she as her own secret. They quickly form a strong bond as they begin building a special world all their own. Adams and Rush have a easy, believable chemistry.

Through Timothy, Joni is able to embrace her own differences with pride. Hedges doesn't hit the audience over the head with this moment, but simply presents it without drawing attention to it and is all the more affecting due to the restraint.

Adams' strong performance goes a long way to making the film work. Often child actors can come across as too precious and cute, but Adams finds a delicate balance between being sweet and likable, but also emotionally honest. His performance is natural and unforced. Along with the two leads in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." it is one of the best child performance to come around in quite some time.

The cast surrounding Adams is exceptional strong. Garner and Edgerton give heartfelt performance that easily could've been overly sappy and cloying, but instead feel based in real emotion.

All the supporting characters are loosely sketched and fairly one-dimensional, but they serve their purposes and are given life by the talented cast. Hedges is telling a fable that plays more on an emotional than intellectual level. The actors enrich their characters with genuine feeling and convictions.

At its core, Hedges' film takes on a serious subject, a family not being able to conceive and trying to adopt, in a way that is light and whimsical. The film is a tearjerker, but Hedges gentle tugs on the heartstrings instead of shamelessly yanking on them.

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