The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Fable or Fantasy? (Movie Notes)

4 Sep
The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green has been classified as a “fantasy drama” film, and I suppose that if you need to put a genre label on it, this works well enough.   Yet, for me, the magical, transformative, and moral qualities that make the film enjoyable (or not, depending on your taste) make it more clearly a fable than a fantasy, and perhaps closer to a fairytale. But, this is a fable meant to teach adults, not children, hidden in a film for the whole family.

This quirky little film has ignited interesting conversation and moving online video footage. People either love it or hate it. I found it sweet, charming, and, well-inoffensive. I agree with the reviewers who have noted that this could have, perhaps should have, been a breakout summer film and, sadly, just didn’t quite hit the mark to get there.

[SPOILER ALERT] The film is narrated as an extended flashback by Cindy and Jim Green, a happily married couple who are, as we meet them, being interviewed by an adoption agency official. She asks them what experience they have. Together they respond “Timothy” and then begin to tell a tale that even they know seems unbelievable.

Their story begins with the heartbreak as Jim and Cindy learn that no medical means are available for them to have their own child.  Devastated by the news of infertility, they return home and devise a grieving process. They write down the qualities that their child would have had–their hopes and dreams for their offspring–put the slips of paper in a box and, in the dead of night, bury the box in the vegetable garden that Cindy lovingly tends.

While they are sleeping, a sudden electrical rainstorm breaks out, and Jim is awoken by the heavy rains. He thinks he hears something in the house and gets up to investigate.  Eventually, he and Cindy discover a naked, mud-covered boy in their house.  Seeing the little leaves growing out of his calves (yes, that’s right), they run to the garden where they realize that their box of traits has sprouted a real, live boy.

Jim and Cindy are good, warm people, desperate  to be parents. So, when Timothy calls them Mom and Dad, they accept readily, even greedily.  The next day they introduce Timothy to their family–Cindy’s too-perfect sister with her over-programmed, over-achieving kids and Jim’s dad, who celebrates manly success, but ignores all other human behavior.

There are a lot of reviews of this film (see links below). My aim is to talk about this film as it relates to fairytales or fables. Fairytales are typically analyzed as an ancient way of teaching life lessons, perhaps about sexuality or worldly dangers. Fables have moralistic lessons, Mishnaic almost. In both instances, the stories (which began in oral traditions, and exist in some form in nearly every culture I’ve ever encountered, are intended to teach children.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is quite unusual in that it is a fable about parenthood and community, about what a parent is or should be.  Witness: A lovely, young, hardworking couple is given a devastating diagnosis of incurable infertility. Unlike what we see in the news (or celebrity rags) there is no miracle. They have to work hard to adopt, after they have mourned their genetic child.

Meanwhile, Jim’s dad is a macho, insensitive father who, we learn, has never been unconditionally supportive. If the kid is on the bench, Jim’s dad leaves the soccer game.  Cindy’s sister has kids whose extracurricular activities have been chosen not because of their interests but with an eye toward getting them in to the right college. Her family doesn’t through a holiday party–they give a holiday concert, encouraging good cheer while demonstrating their musical prowess and magazine photogenic qualities. Both of these parental archetypes are focused on achievement and image. The contrast to Jim and Cindy seems intent on portraying them as having a certain kind of moral bankruptcy, or at least having very shallow reasons for wanting to be parents.

Cindy and Jim, on the other hand, receive Timothy without question and with pure love. They do try to change, then hide, his difference, but as parents this may be their biggest mistake.

Every now and then, the flashback stops and the adoption official interjects a comment or question meant to make Jim and Cindy (and us) question their fitness as parents, their ability to make decisions, to handle intense emotions. But, when we return to the narrative, the contrast of their openness and unconditional love to Cindy’s sister and Jim’s dad makes clear who director Peter Hedges (writer What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, dir Pieces of April) thinks is the better parent.

Timothy’s friend Joni provides another touchpoint for understanding Hedge’s message about community and interpersonal relations. Timothy first sets eyes on her during one of the moments when the emergence of the sun has caused him to stop in his tracks and tilt his face up, as plants do. Joni’s presence interrupts his meditation and he watches her ride away on a bicycle strewn with leaves. Perhaps her recognizes her as a druid of sorts, a spirit of the trees. Though she seems to be several years older than he, they develop a special friendship, eventually creating a secret world in the woods decorated with all kinds of canopies and furniture they have crafted out leaves, flowers, and tree bark. When it is time for him to go, he explains it first to Joni.

The appearance of Timothy is not just a gift to Jim, Cindy, and Joni. As he appears, Stanleyville is in the midst of a long drought and its major employer, a pencil factory, is about to lay off hundreds of workers. The town itself seems to have lost its fertility.  Jim and Cindy restore this when they Timothy’s innocent wish that they invent another kind of pencil. When they succeed, the plant owner’s son tries to take credit. Timothy, uncowed, grabs a microphone at a town meeting and declares his parents the inventors. He tells his story–leaves and all–to set things straight. The lesson here, as with the contrasting parent examples, seems to be that it is the focus on personal achievement that has left Stanleyville dry and that community and humility will jumpstart the econonmy of the town.

With the factory’s acceptance of the new pencil, Timothy’s season of change ends. Leaving gifts of his fallen leaves to remind people of what he brought, he disappears as mysteriously as he arrived. Mud to mud, as it were.  His truth, however, remains.

As several commentators point out, watching film that “stuns you by breaking your heart seems to be a sort of rite of passage for children of a certain age.” Culture Sprout didn’t see it that way.  She didn’t think of Timothy as having died. Rather, she understood that he was a plant, of sorts, a fabulous creation, who, like trees, had a cycle to complete. When I asked if she was sad at the end, she said, no, that Timothy had done what he came to do and that, like he said, it was time for him to go. Perhaps her life experience has made her differently sensitive than other children, but it was in fact, her reaction, her innate understanding of the destiny Timothy had come to fulfill, that got me thinking about this film as fable rather than fantasy.

This is a lovely family film. Culture Sprout enjoyed it as did Culture Grandmother.  But, it is not a fable or a fairytale in the usual sense. Its lessons are for us–the middle-aged custodians of our children’s future. As a good fable tries, it teaches us that there is another way to make our towns (our economy, our families) creative and fertile again, that we need to look beyond striving to get our kids in to the right schools or only cheering for the varsity soccer team.  It wants us to find value in nature and in the natural affinities that make us a community. It is, actually, a bit schmaltzy. It’s also a lovely film to contemplate as we enter the preparation period for the Jewish high holidays and in the run-up to the November elections. Ultimately, it teaches as Aesop himself might have, to contemplate that it is our job, each of us, to make our world a better place. Or, perhaps, as Voltaire might have, “That we must cultivate our gardens.”

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