Think of the most beautiful, moving greeting card you've ever been given, regardless of the occasion -- birthday, sympathy, graduation, whatever. The odds are good you remember the emotions you felt reading it, or even just getting it, more than what it actually said. That's exactly what you're likely to take away from Peter Hedges' The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
In this gentle fable about parenthood, Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton play Cindy and Jim Green, a pair of sweet-natured souls who, in order to come to grips with the fact that they'll never be able to conceive a child, get drunk one night and write on little slips of paper all of the attributes they wanted their offspring to have. They put the slips in a box, bury it in the garden, and go to bed planning to start their lives over in the morning. That plan changes when a freak rainstorm hits their drought-ridden community, causing a boy (CJ Adams) to emerge from the box. He claims his name is Timothy and calls the shocked adults mom and dad.
The setup of the film achieves a timeless quality that all fables should possess. The actors find just the right tone to make the emotions real without being overwhelming, the direction is straightforward in a way that makes these miraculous events seem utterly natural, and John Toll's gorgeous cinematography showcases bright greens and golden yellows with a warmth that we feel instinctively even though it doesn't call attention to itself.
If only the full plot of the film were as magical as the first act, Hedges would have had a picture that appealed to children as much as adults. It turns out that Timothy isn't long for this world (something we know but the new parents initially don't), and in the short time he has with Cindy and Jim, they'll learn all of the valuable lessons they need to become great parents one day. Through their adventures with Timothy, Cindy finds the strength to confront her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is forever bragging about her precocious and overscheduled children, and Jim works up the fortitude to address the absentee parenting of his own father (David Morse).
All of the actors are fine, but the problem is that the script has no driving force. We're just watching a collection of scenes -- heartbreaking, tender, delicate -- that lose their magic as they pile up for no reason except that we have to tick off all of the lessons the adults need to learn. The best subplot involves Timothy's close friendship with an older girl named Joni (Odeya Rush), who has a large splotchy birthmark that makes her feel like an outcast. Their moments together match the lyrical, poetic potential of the cinematography, and temporarily shake the film out of its insistence on focusing on the adults.
What the movie needs is an element of fun -- or at least childlike wonder -- to balance out the foreboding gloom that hangs over every interaction. The whole picture is an emotional time bomb constructed to get to the point when the parents have to say goodbye to this perfect child. The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a handsomely produced, well-meaning, feature-length greeting card that's likely to strike a chord while you're watching it, but you'll have forgotten all about it by next Mother's Day.