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.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Trying to be Human 101: Passivity in Sacrifice

Trying to be Human 101 digs into human experience and how it effects adoption. Previously I discussed the nature of dignity and provided an excerpt from Jim Gritter's Life Givers. This is the second of several posts within the Trying to be Human 101 series discussing sacrifice.

Sacrifice is a transaction. Typically there is social contract that accompanies sacrifices. When one makes a sacrifice, the belief is the loss will allow that need to be addressed appropriately. An example of this might be a person who takes an additional shift at work, sacrificing time with loved ones, to make more money for living expenses. Because choice is involved the sacrificer can bring their personal power to bear in the situation, thus giving them a sense of control. The weight of the sacrifice can be compared to the need calling for it. Judgement can be made including rational and emotional experiences and a choice is made. But what happens when the tables turn? What if the choice to make a sacrifice is illusory? All too often a sacrifice is made but the perceived contract is not fulfilled. Instead the sacrificer, upon losing their prized subject (be it a relationship, item, situation, or idea), feels powerless and no closer to fulfilling the need that drove the sacrifice in the first place. This experience is all too common in adoption.

I believe this sudden shift of experience is symptomatic of a disturbing reality; birthparents are sacrificed in adoption. This is not always true, but it happens with troubling frequency. The relationship between sacrificer and sacrificed can be subtle and murky, especially when the sacrifices are relationships. Other times it is blatant, as with most international adoptions. The birthparent, rather than making a sacrifice on behalf of their child, is sacrificed. The reason for the sacrifice varies. Sometimes the parent is sacrificed in order to fulfill the adoptive families need for a child to parent. Often the birthfamily is sacrificed in far subtler ways.

A birthparent is most often sacrificed on the alter of social expectation. The birthparent becomes the sacrifice necessary to blot out the apparent sin of conceiving a child in less than ideal circumstances. This ties in directly with the Splendid Doormat. In order to attain social acceptability the first family must sacrifice all claim, personal rights, worth, and dignity in order to achieve a semi-saint status. Once sainted the first family can then, and only then, be considered redeemed from the disgrace of adoption.

This may seem a little far fetched or that I'm dramatizing the point. In reality I'm soft-pedaling this one. A bit of study in art history and especially in film history shows how prevalent these themes are. The hoops for redemption must be jumped through and none of them can be skipped or exchanged. Breaking social mores requires drastic action for redemption, if one can be redeemed at all.

 In the case of adoption the process of sacrifice can be either; humbling but important, or destructive and horrible. The way we describe the key difference in English is with voice. In active voice, "I sacrifice", I am making choices and am directly involved in the path of that sacrifice. Though I make a sacrifice I still have some degree of control. In passive voice, "I am sacrificed", I have no say. I have lost the ability to apply my will to the process. Instead I become an element of sacrifice, not an active participant. In adoptions it is extremely dangerous to alloy anyone to sacrifice anyone else. To do so is to strip a person of their humanity. To be sacrificed is to be told one has no say in their future, no right to express personal needs, and no expectation these experiences will change. This might sound familiar.

Even in adoptions where all the adults respect one another and behave with emotional/relational integrity, the adoptee may still feel they have been sacrificed. Obviously no one wants this to be the case. An overwhelming majority of parents want their children to feel loved. This means sacrifices are made on their behalf, but they are not sacrificed themselves. Unfortunately, in adoption, no one can predict how the adoptee will feel about his/her circumstances.

I believe, despite the best of intentions, if an adoptee feels s/he has been sacrificed in their adoption, they have. No one has the right to say otherwise. Parents, where ever they fall on the biology/care continuum, may feel they have done everything right and have nothing to apologize for. But the best intentions cannot countermand the emotional reality of a child. If the adoptee feels s/he was sacrificed it's true. The only thing for a parent to do is face that reality head on and try to pick up the pieces.

When all goes well no one is sacrificed. Instead everyone in the adoption will make sacrifices to support one another. With this mutual support everyone's needs and experiences are respected.
I wish everyone in adoption had this experience. But when it does go wrong, as it can so quickly, telling a person her/his emotional experience is "wrong" only deepens the depersonalization. It is not possible to undo mistakes, but some can be avoided through careful attention. In adoption applying our integrity and compassion to our decisions will help avoid most of these problems. With that in mind it's possible to make an adoption something that really is beautiful. That happens when the sacrifices made are respected and celebrated for being exactly what they are.