The Odd Life of Timothy Green has sort of a creepy premise — a childless couple write down all of their fantasies about the child they'll never have, and bury them in a box in the backyard. One magical rainstorm later, the child they dreamed up comes climbing up out of the dirt, except that he's already 10 years old and preternaturally wise.
But the execution is actually somewhat creepier than you'd expect from that description. This is someone's fantasy of a perfect kid, who never cries or has a tantrum. This film is a weirdly incoherent wish-fulfillment orgy, in which you get all the highlights of having a kid without most of the pain. And having a kid really does fix all the other problems in your life.
Watching The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I kept being reminded of Ruby Sparks, which only just came out a few weeks ago. In both movies, the lonely protagonist(s) write down their fantasies and dreams of a perfect girlfriend or a perfect child. And then, through magic that's left vague, the lover or child of your dreams appears out of thin air — and everything that was written down about him or her comes true, exactly as it was written.
The difference between the two films is that Ruby Sparks embraces the creepiness of its premise, and dives into the ways that having your fantasies come true could be problematic. (Even though we're apparently supposed to love and admire Calvin, the control-freak novelist in Ruby Sparks.) But meanwhile, even though we see plenty of instances where Timothy's parents use Timothy for their selfish wish-fulfillment, the movie mostly gives them a pass. And the result is both saccharine and kind of dull.
In fact, a lot of the tropes in Timothy Green are sort of romantic comedy tropes, only here they've been turned into stories about parenting. The world is full of hundreds of romcoms where the love interest is a mannequin or an imaginary lover brought to life, or the male lead has some totally implausible secret. But this is a somewhat rarer movie where, instead of a man finding his ideal woman through a contrived set of circumstances, it's about a married couple finding their ideal child. The whole notion of turning the romcom format into a movie about parenting is somewhat weird and ill-fitting.
Because of course, in real life, when you "fall in love" with your own child, it's as a baby. Or if you adopt a child who's already 10 years old, then there's a certain amount of discomfort and adjustment on both sides — a real 10-year-old has already had a lot of life experience, good or bad, and you have to find a way to connect with someone who's already a fully formed individual.
In Odd Life, though, you sort of get to have it both ways. Timothy Green is a tabula rasa in most of the ways that count, even though he speaks English and seems unnaturally wise about certain things. He's untainted by any previous set of parental figures, but can already speak in complete sentences and has been toilet-trained. He has virtually no personality traits other than sweetness, and we are clearly meant to fall in love with him just as his parents/fabricators do.
So in Odd Life of Timothy Green, Jim and Cindy Green are not just childless, but also kind of staring down a bit of a midlife crisis in general. They're lonesome and unfulfilled, and their lives are clearly a disappointment even apart from the lack of a child. Jim is a foreman or some kind of middle manager at the pencil factory that is their town's main employer — but the pencil factory is in danger of closing. Meanwhile, Cindy wanted to be an artist but gave up on her dreams, and now works at the pencil museum, where her boss is a tyrant. (Yes, there's really a pencil museum. It's fascinating, and we spend a lot of time there.)
So they're both kind of unsatisfied with how their lives have turned out — and Timothy doesn't just fill a child-sized gap in their lives, he also solves most of their problems, one way or another. Without going into too many spoilers, Timothy has a better solution to the "factory in danger of shutting down" dilemma than a dozen management consultants could come up with.
And meanwhile, Jim and Cindy just want to use their "son" to settle some unfinished business with their relatives. Jim feels like his own father, Big Jim, never supported him when he was a kid. So Jim tries to use Timothy to show Big Jim what happens when you support your son and believe in him — and this involves putting lots of pressure on Timothy to be good at sports. Meanwhile, Cindy feels threatened by her sister, who never shuts up about her perfect overachieving children. So Cindy tries to use Timothy to show that she can have a "special" kid too.
There's something slightly disturbing about these two grown-ups getting a magic miracle child and using him to score points against their families, in a petty fashion. And the film flirts with pointing out how weird that is, a few times — but never quite makes up its mind to make this a major issue. (And that's the biggest problem with Timothy Green in general — whenever there's a genuine source of conflict or tension, the movie avoids delving too deeply into it, for fear of losing its "sweet" and whimsical tone. For example, bullying is brought up in one super mild sequence, and then dismissed forever.)
Just like Ruby Sparks, Timothy Green is defined by the written instructions that created him. Timothy can't be anything, or anyone, that his "parents" didn't write down and put in that box that they buried in their garden. In fact, he's more constrained than Ruby, who keeps growing beyond the parameters that Calvin set for her. Timothy literally has no traits that weren't pre-inscribed for him. (And in Timothy's case, there's no chance to go back and add more stuff after the fact.) So Timothy is, in some sense, pure wish-fulfillment made flesh. We're supposed to think this is a good thing, because Cindy and Jim are basically good, generous people who are determined to be good parents even if they make mistakes.
The one way in which Timothy Green seems to have a life of his own is that he's really into this one girl, who seems to be much older and has massive beestung lips and an intense gaze. (Here, too, Timothy's obeying an edict that his parents wrote down for him.) Timothy and Joni (Odeya Rush) wind up spending a ton of time together, building a weird sort of leaf-cathedral-thingy in the woods. I'm not sure how old the actor playing Timothy Green is, but Odeya Rush is 15 years old in real life, and the fact that a 10-year-old is supposed to be dating a 15-year-old is one of the many things in this film that feels somewhat off-kilter. (They're explicitly stated to be dating once or twice, plus the whole thing is portrayed as young love.)
Playing Cindy, Jennifer Garner does her utmost pout-acting — if you remember the kind of "gee wow" faces she makes throughout a lot of 13 Going on 30, she pulls those faces twice as hard here. It's the sort of facial expression that Sydney Bristow would have worn, if one of her boyfriends had turned out to be a clockwork Rambaldi artifact disguised as a human being, who was also a triple agent, and was secretly cheating on her with Will Tippin.
Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton, who's clearly aware he's carrying the movie, keeps his shoulders hunched up next to his ears and looks as though he's constantly ill-at-ease within his own skin. Edgerton's performance is an exaggerated "working stiff with a heart of gold" riff, but it's the only thing in the movie that feels 100 percent genuine and heartfelt.
Most of our fairytales and fantasies are wish fulfillment of one sort or another — something magical and improbable to set us free from all the dead ends we've gotten ourselves stuck in. Either that, or there's an element of confronting some terrible darkness that's a metaphor for real-life evil. But what sort of fantasy is Timothy Green really? It's not just a wish-fulfillment about a childless couple getting to have a child, because they don't get a baby, and a lot of the most "magical" stuff in the film is about how Timothy somehow "fixes" all his parents' problems with their careers or families.
So actually, it's hard not to suspect that the gnawing anxiety at the heart of The Odd Life of Timothy Green isn't about loneliness or childlessness at all — rather, it's about feeling like a failure. Or fearing that you might not actually be special after all, you're just another ordinary grown-up: compromises, regrets and all. The wish-fulfillment comes from the notion that a magic child-saint could show up and prove to the world that you're somebody, after all. This is a fable for disappointed and insecure thirty-somethings everywhere.