The films writer-director Peter Hedges is most associated with concern families and childhood. Among them are “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” which he adapted from his novel for director Lasse Halström in 1993; his two directed films, “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life”; and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “About a Boy.”
No surprise then that his “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” lasers in on those topics. Yet of all his films, this one is the trickiest, a high-wire act without a net. For the script he wrote with Ahmet Zappa contains a magical element that frequently works in foreign or indie films but rarely in studio fare.
It certainly helps that Walt Disney is releasing “Timothy Green.” Movies about families to whom magical things happen were once a staple at its Burbank lot.
This one involves no anthropomorphic VW or absent-minded professor’s discovery of flubber, however, but rather a 10-year-old boy who magically appears one night. One dark and stormy night.
It pretty much works. Not for everyone, of course. The supernatural is so common in horror and fantasy films, but when plunked down in Any Town U.S.A., amid good folks coping with the challenges of daily life, some audiences and critics will cry “humbug.”
The story gets told by a childless couple, Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton), to two employees at an adoption agency (one of whom is Oscar-nominated Shohreh Aghdashloo).
After receiving the medical news that natural conception is not an option, the distraught couple retreat to their lovely colonial-style home outside of their small town. Determined to hold onto their “kid” for one more night, they drink wine and write down on slips of paper every talent and wonder about their amazing child.
The papers go into a wooden box that is buried in the backyard. That night during a storm, which only happens at their home, a young boy named Timothy appears. He calls them “mom” and “dad.”
The crucial casting here is obviously Timothy. Hedges found a gem in CJ Adams, who as luck would have it had a few lines in “Dan in Real Life” when he was 6. What makes Adams so special is his uncanny ability to play a kid who is not quite real.
You know what kids are like in real life and for that matter in movies. They are seldom smarter than their parents or see the bright side to everything — “I can only get better!” Timothy exclaims to the soccer coach when he can barely kick a ball — or know how to create a secret world with an older girl without the parents finding out.
Adams with his mop-hair and cherubic face acts like an old soul, who guides his new parents through their parenting lessons and encourages them to move on from their mistakes.
Oh, there is one peculiar thing about Timothy. Leaves grow on his legs, leaves that cannot be removed.
Meanwhile, he makes friends with a very pretty older girl (a fine debut by Israeli-born actress Odeya Rush) who has her own secret. His parents don’t understand the nature of their child’s relationship with this girl but he wisely ignores their advice in this matter.
The film moves down a checklist of qualities and experiences that originally appeared on the buried “wish list.” Honest to a fault — check, only mom loses her job. A Picasso with a pencil — double check. The “scores the winning goal” gets checked too but doesn’t turn out as they imagined.
These incidents do take in many of the characters of this small town, named Stanleyville. This includes Jim’s own dad (David Morse), who was never a supporting father to his son; an uncle (M. Emmet Walsh) with health issues; and Cindy’s sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), obsessed with her own children’s achievements.
Then there’s the pencil factory, the town’s number-one employer, where Jim works. It’s losing money and laying off workers. Does Timothy have another miracle up his sleeve?
These “miracles” tend to have an inner logic where a suggestion from Timothy inspires the adults to make things happen. You might see where this is all going but the journey has its charms and whimsy.
As with “Gilbert Grape,” Hedges catches the small-town flavor perfectly. “Timothy Green” lacks the enchantment of that film but it does catch equally as well the comedy, drama and tragedy that can befall a group of characters who are treated with empathy and understanding.
This is a fine film, where the below-the-line work is exemplary, so you can concentrate on a cast that brings to life a series of memorable characters.
Opens: August 15 (Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios)
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Scott Sanders Productions, Monsterfoot Productions
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, Dianne Wiest, CJ Adams, Rosemary DeWitt, Ron Livingston, M. Emmet Walsh, Odeya Rush, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lois Smith, David Morse, Common
Director/screenwriter: Peter Hedges
Story by: Ahmet Zappa
Producers: Scott Sanders, Ahmet Zappa, Jim Whitaker
Executive producers: John Cameron, Mara Jacobs
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Music: Geoff Zanelli
Costume designer: Susie DeSanto
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
PG rating, 104 minutes