As wildly fantastical versions of the world featuring kung-fu pandas, dueling monsters and aliens, and talking insects have become the primary domain of the children’s film, the more grounded magic realist fable has all but faded into oblivion. Only the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki still regularly indulges the style, and even his work has veered in a far less earthly direction than it took in the days of “My Neighbor Totoro.” That 1988 film, in particular, remains a perfect illustration of how magic realism works so well in this genre: the “magic” elements serve not as heady symbols, but as manifestations of the innocent wonder with which we view the world when we are young, thereby allowing kids to relate and adults to remember.
Peter Hedges’ “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a pleasant reminder that the style still works wonders. It tells the story of the eponymous grade school-aged boy (CJ Adams), who springs from the ground like a seedling after an infertile couple (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) plants a list of all the dream characteristics possessed by child they were never able to conceive.
Appropriately, Timothy has leaves growing out of his legs, which his new parents cover up with socks so that no one asks questions. And no one ever does. Mom and Dad certainly don’t care about the flora that comes attached to their miracle child; they simply care that they have him. Upon catching a glimpse of the leaves, Timothy’s crush (Odeya Rush) doesn’t care, either; they’re just what make him special. That’s the beauty of this fable form of magic realism: Rather than contemplate how Timothy came to be or why he has plant-adorned legs, the viewer simply accepts these story attributes as givens. The children in the audience will have no problem overlooking such implausibilities and the adults will enjoy trying to reclaim such a carefree state of mind, to momentarily free themselves of the cynicism that accompanies maturation.
Hedges telegraphs that the conclusion will be bittersweet, as a frequently interspersed flash-forward scene finds Timothy’s parents talking about him in the past-tense with an adoptions agent. It becomes clear that the boy will leave the planet as quickly as he entered it; the leaves on his legs fall off with each passing childhood experience, and it is inferred that once they are all gone, he will be, too. But even with such gloomy foreshadowing, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” never feels sorrowful, observing everyday situations (weekend soccer games, family gatherings) through the ever optimistic eyes of its pint-sized protagonist. Timothy may be naive–in one scene, he willingly allows a school bully to rub food all over his face–but in an era in which everyone’s lives are overcomplicated, such naiveté is positively endearing.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” doesn’t break any new artistic ground, but it doesn’t need to because it masters the fine art of simplicity. There are no explosions, no scenes of exaggerated conflict, no narrative or audio-visual tricks designed create the illusion of entertainment without offering the real deal. Instead, Hedges has made a movie that is all about the power of a kind heart — and what could kids and adults alike need more than that?