Unable to conceive a child yet reluctant to consider adoption, Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) compile a dream list of the perfect attributes of their ideal child that they then plant in the garden. That night, to the Greens' considerable astonishment, young Timothy (CJ Adams) sprouts out of the ground, a mystical, wordly-wise little boy with leaves on his leg who seems the answer to their prayers. But in raising Timothy, Jim and Cindy grow to realise their motives and parenting skills aren't quite as solid as they had imagined.
Now and then the Disney studio produce something wildly offbeat. Following the idiosyncratic Tuck Everlasting (2002) and Holes (2003), The Odd Life of Timothy Green is another refreshingly ambitious and accomplished children's fantasy, albeit not quite in their class. A sleeper hit in the US, the film made nary a ripple on these shores but gained some notoriety for spawning a YouTube video depicting two traumatised tots bawling their eyes out over the finale. Based on a story by Ahmet Zappa, son of iconoclastic rock star Frank Zappa, adapted for the screen by novelist and indie filmmaker Peter Hedges - who penned the classic What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) - the film subverts the usual triumphalist wish-fulfilment narrative at the heart of most Disney family movies. It is instead a cautionary tale warning against parents that have children for the wrong reasons.
At first glance, Jim and Cindy could not be any more sympathetic in their desperate yearning for a child, but the obvious question arises: why don't they adopt? In fact the film features the couple being interviewed by staff at the adoption agency (including Shohreh Aghdashloo) as a framing device. The answer proves to be the root of the problem. Evidently, Jim and Cindy want a child that is a physical extension of their own unfulfilled dreams and desires, a child who can compensate for their perceived failings and inadequacies. Gradually, the story becomes a metaphor for how children invariably bear the brunt of their parents' anxieties and neuroses. As nice as Jim and Cindy undoubtedly are (both Garner and Edgerton radiate charm like a beacon) they are also quite selfish. As parents they make nothing but mistakes and are ultimately shown to have a lot more growing up to do than Timothy. For his part, Jim seems to be on a mission to use his newfound son to finally show up his overbearing father (David Morse), who is strangely aggressive towards Timothy, bouncing a football off the boy's head within minutes of their first meeting. Indeed most of Jim and Cindy's family prove oddly indifferent to the new arrival and react to the concept of adoption with unfathomable hostility.
Unfortunately, Hedges does not resolve any of the various conflicts, including Cindy's ongoing rivalry with her self-centred sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) in a satisfactory way and lets the film waver into quirky sub-plots such as Jim's struggles with his job at the pencil factory. The plot runs on a fairytale logic requiring a suspension of disbelief some viewers may find taxing but rewards those willing to go along with its wayward narrative with haunting moments such as Timothy's encounter with an ailing uncle (M. Emmet Walsh) and sweetly lyrical romance with Mila Kunis look-alike Joni (Odeya Rush) who proves as important a presence in his life as the Greens yet is dispensed with in oddly perfunctory fashion. Lensed in warm autumnal tones by cinematographer John Toll, the film has too many plot holes to be considered a classic but emerges an admirably quirky and thought-provoking fantasy. Theme song performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, stars of Oscar-winning musical Once (2006).