Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Odd Life Of Timothy Green - A Film Review

Typically a character named in the title of a movie is the main point of interest. Sometimes the character is talked about more than they are seen (as in Saving Private Ryan). But most of the time a film named for a character will be about that character (such as Forest Gump or The Talented Mr. Ripley). This is not the case in The Odd Life Of Timothy Green.

A more honest title may have been "The Odd Life Of Timothy MacGuffin". Timothy is not the main character of the film, and in truth is barely addressed as being a person. When the character shows up he is fully self actualized. Timothy has no needs at all. As a result Timothy, as a character, is utterly static. He displays no growth, nor even hardship, throughout the film. This means his parents are never called on to support him in any way. Instead, Timothy supports his parents as they grapple with changes in their lives brought on by Timothy's presence. In a disturbing turn, one of the hardest adaptations his parents make is living with a shred of integrity. Every scene throughout the film in which his parents appear to provide emotional support for Timothy, the motivation appears to be embarrassment rather than concern for his emotional well being.

Rather than discussing the experience a family goes through in developing bonds or experiencing estrangement as a result of adoption, TOLOTG (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) is the navel gazing adventure of  hopeful parents obsessed with familial obligation. More screen time is given to Jim and Cindy Green interacting with their biological family members than with their son. The implication is, the way Timothy affects his parents existing relationships, is more important than his relationship with them. In effect, the story is about how neat it would be to become a parent, not about parenting. In fact the parents never really discussed why they want to be parents in the first place. The film assumes everyone knows why it is important to have children. For some people it may be troubling to think this idea needs defense. But the truth is the miraculously convenient events of this story do demand more justification than "it's the next thing to do" or "everyone wants kids". One evening Jim and Cindy Green are trying to mourn their chance to have a child biologically, and the next they are acclimating to having their own child (SPOILER) in the middle of a family reunion (CLOSE SPOILER). The transition from one experience to the other involves bewilderment, then total acceptance. There are no tears or frustration. They don't skip a beat. Frankly there is no emotional honesty at all.

That's the real achilles heal to the story of TOLOTG. There is no emotional honesty or depth at any point. The closest it gets is when we see Timothy's friend cry in the last quarter of the film. The children are the only people who show any honesty throughout this movie, only with one another, and it only happens a handful of times. Jim and Cindy Green weren't represented even vaguely accurately as humans. Their decisions and mistakes never had any significant impact on their lives. (SPOILER) At one point Cindy loses her job, because Timothy inspired her to actually be honest. This affects one line of the script. Jim responds saying "thing's will be tight but we'll be alright". It's never mentioned again. Shortly thereafter Jim is given responsibility for laying off several of his coworkers. This puts him in a bad mood for exactly six seconds of screen time (CLOSE SPOILER). So Jim's in a terrible mood, but it's fixed when Cindy and Timothy decide to follow Jim into the living room with dinner. They have a candle-lit picnic dinner inside, which everyone loves.

Throughout the course of the picnic dinner, Timothy does little else than stare adoringly at his parents. The exception to this is when he, yet again, solves his parents' problems for them. That highlights the second fatal flaw of this movie; all the children represented have reversed relationships with their parents. Each child with a significant role (both of them) are self actualized, confident, unflappable individuals. The parents spend their time bouncing off these monolithic children until they learn the lesson in that scene. Then everyone moves on to the next scene and the next lesson. Throughout this process none of the children show any growth or development. In fact I'd go so far as to say they show no memory either. This isn't just poor writing, this is dangerous.

Showcasing children without needs, with mountain-like emotional stability, and total self knowledge in a theoretically child centered movie is damaging. It shames the children in the audience for having needs. The children on the screen are perfect, so the children in the audience are pressured to be the same. The children on the screen make no mistakes, and therefore the viewer is called to the same standard. It's important to remember that the genre of "Family Films" functions to instruct us what the modern family is supposed to be like. These are didactic movies. As such I feel it is damaging, even damning, to expect children to identify with the most alien of experiences presented to them; perfection and isolation.

Timothy doesn't appear to be isolated, but he is. He has one friend who is emotionally affected by him. In his parents lives he is a lifestyle prop. Timothy is the means to the end. (SPOILER) This is rather openly displayed when Timothy disappears, yet the viewer never sees his parents mourn. Instead we get to see how happy his parents are when his replacement is delivered. The little girl of Asian descent, who also speaks perfect English, is delivered to their front door literally without any baggage (CLOSE SPOILER). The child has no roots, no baggage, and no past. There are no ethical quandaries about adoption because the children have no origin. The children literally come from no where and are delivered like a pizza.

There are a lot of things that could have been incorporated into this story to spur honest conversation about adoption. Imagine if Timothy had a learning disability, or heaven forbid a physical abnormality that actually affected how he functioned. He would have had unavoidable needs that could only be attended to properly by his caregivers. Things get even more interesting if Timothy were raised in a poor neighborhood in a city. But I think the real elephant in the room is this; what if Timothy were ethnically or culturally different than his parents? The truth is a Disney film couldn't survive the possibility of Timothy being black, let alone admitting to the serious problems of fraud, theft, and human trafficking in international adoptions. But worst of all, the idea of adopting a healthy child from people in the same town can't even be considered. Domestic adoption is hinted at by the clear English spoken by the little girl at the end of the film, yet the combination of her name and the casting choice is clearly intended to bring international adoption to mind. I think the real purpose for the girl speaking English without difficulty is to underline the idea that this adoption incurs no difficulties at all.

Much like Juno, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green is a film about people who aren't affected by anything that happens around, or even directly to, them. The overall message is like cotton balls soaked in anti-freeze; it is light, fluffy, sickly sweet, and toxic. The dad only has dad quality problems (mad at his dad, trouble at work), the mom has mom quality problems (pressure of familial obligation, over identification with child's embarrassment, can't "love" boss at work) and the children have no problems of any consequence (the deep dark secret of the friend is, SPOILER, a birthmark CLOSE SPOILER). I expected to be violently angry after watching this film. Instead I felt scummy and mildly nauseous.

But this begs the question - why did I even see this movie if I expected to hate it so much? I readily admit that I'm giving this movie more publicity by discussing it at all, and I'd much rather see it disappear entirely. My concern is with the number of positive reviews I've seen for the movie by writers who care about adoption. In the effort to attain public acceptance, I'm afraid some people are ready to latch on to any kind of acceptance. The Odd Life Of Timothy Green claimed to be a movie about adoption. But the kind of adoption it avoids talking about, for one hour and forty five minutes, is a terrible one. It's the kind of adoption that ruins lives and keeps children from their past. It ignores the experiences of both adoptees and first parents. Instead of representing the experience of prospective adoptive parents, the focus is solely Jim and Cindy's comfort. As it relates to adoption this movie is horrible and somewhat insidious. If we try to relate it to foster care, this movie is fucking evil.


  1. This is a very good post; thanks for sharing it with me. You made a couple really great points. First, "Timothy supports his parents as they grapple with changes" You're right. That's really not healthy. I don't know if it's entirely unrealistic though; (I'm thinking mostly of kids in foster care because that's been where I've worked). Sometimes kids are quite parentified - and sometimes the foster / adoptive parents are really unrealistic in their expectations of foster care and adoption. They expect no difficulties, and they kind of forget that the point of what they're doing should be to serve a child's needs. I don't know that the movie is inaccurate in how it portrayed this; but it does fall short in that it doesn't really challenge it. It just shows it, and viewers are unfortunately free to accept it as cute, rather than as imbalanced. The closest thing to a rebuke that Jim and Cindy get is from the coach who bemoans the fact that they are "those kind" of parents. I'm glad that at least that one comment made it into the movie. I also hadn't caught how quickly the Greens get over their emotions; I appreciated how they actually were intentional in grieving their infertility - that was healthy! But you're right, they really didn't process much else. Great review. Thanks!

  2. Addison - I appreciate your perspective. I agree that a lot of kids, particularly in foster care, have had to become "parentified". But as you point out, being reality based doesn't mean it's healthy. What I found disappointing in the film was it had the opportunity to challenge many stereotypes and presumptions about adoption. Instead I believe it reinforced many of the least healthy (or at least clueless) perspectives about adoption and foster care. You hit the nail on the head with the cute versus imbalanced spectrum. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. I liked that movie... I thought it was good. The parents made mistakes and learned from them. The child was "perfect" but obviously this isn't a realistic story (he has leaves growing on his legs and came out of the garden, which is hardly believable). In my opinion they wanted to keep his differences secret to keep him safe, because people are going to want to experiment on a kid "born" that way. I didn't see it as a way to hide their embarrassment. They very much thought of him as their child. I am not an expert in any way on films or adoption, but I liked it.

  4. Rachel - Thanks for sharing your views. I agree that the movie wasn't realistic. Rather than take it literally I believe it was attempting to use the sudden appearance of the child from the garden as a metaphor for fostering or adopting a child. Given the resolution at the end of the film that seems to be internally consistent.

    It's pretty obvious that my opinion is different than yours. It would be foolish of either of us to try to convince the other. I think it would also disrespect us and the importance of diverse views. So it is with this respect in mind that I want to share one more thought your comment brought up for me.

    "In my opinion they wanted to keep his differences secret to keep him safe, because people are going to want to experiment on a kid "born" that way." If the film were a literal story I could understand this and likely agree with it. But the people the Greens were protecting Timothy from were his extended family and friends. It seems quite unlikely his immediate family would want to experiment on him. Similarly, if the film is indeed a metaphor, it must be consistently considered a metaphor. We can't step in and out of literal portrayal scene by scene. The movie is either about adoption via metaphor or an alien-vegetable-child by literal portrayal. It cannot be both.

    Thank you again for contributing to the conversation.


What do you think? I'm curious.