A wonderful formula for emotionally engaging family movies is attributed to Walt Disney. He reportedly told his movie teams that for every laugh there must be a tear. That balance is why classics from “Bambi” to Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” endure. They celebrate the family members and friends who make life grand while acknowledging our fears that we may lose them and be left alone in the world.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is Disney’s formula flawlessly executed. It’s perfectly fitting that a story about a boy who emerges from the earth of a childless couple’s garden should have a perfect balance of sunshine and rain.
Cindy and Jim Green, played by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton, have done their best to remain cheerful while struggling for years with infertility. Their plight is echoed by their make-believe hometown of Stanleyville, where a stifling drought drags on and the main industry, the pencil factory, faces declining demand and layoffs.
Cheering up over a bottle of red wine, they playfully put the kid issue behind them, scribbling down all the attributes they wanted in their dream child, sealing them in a wooden box, and burying it in their vegetable patch. That night a drenching downpour arrives — exclusively over the Green household. Awakened by a late-night knock on the door, they discover a mud-caked, delightful boy (CJ Adams) who affectionately calls them Mom and Dad.
The moment is beyond wonderful. Their wish has come true, with Timothy embodying every virtue they imagined, even if some of them, like his fearless honesty, lead to unforeseen complications.
The screenplay easily could have tumbled into a treacle pit, but writer/ director Peter Hedges (“Dan in Real Life,” “About a Boy,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) knows how to keep the story’s hokum grounded in relatable reality. Jim has a high-friction relationship with his own dad (David Morse). Cindy’s sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a textbook underminer, and her boss at the local pencil museum (Dianne Weist) is a colossal grump. Hedges allows himself enough suspension of disbelief to finesse Timothy’s introduction to the couple’s family and close friends, and his instant registration at the middle school.
Timothy is a bit different, in all good ways, making friends with an artistic girl at school who is a budding rebel outcast. He sets a standard of kindness and decency that’s rather hard for his often-bewildered parents to live up to. And his remarkable background poses some weird challenges: When he’s unwell does he go to the hospital or the greenhouse?
The film unfolds over the course of a year in which every character affected by Timothy grows as a result. Like time-lapse photography of an opening flower bud, the film gives us birth, love, learning and loss in accelerated fashion. It’s a peculiar fable that touches universal emotions — a blooming miracle.