The Odd Life of Timothy Green is not one of the “big” movies of the summer. Over all, it grossed only a little over $46 million in its one month run in theaters. So, when it comes to financial success, this film doesn’t have it. I would also say that there needs to be some considerable suspension of disbelief when watching this film. The premise is a little strange (a childless couple puts their dreams for a child into a box and buries it in their garden, only to wake up to a boy with leaves on his legs). There are also a few plot holes (how did they get him into public school with no birth certificates and such?). But if you take a step back and realize that this is a Disney parable, believability isn’t quite so necessary. You can read the synopsis at the IMDB link above (or click on the picture for the IMDB link) so I won’t go into a full description of the plot. However, expect spoilers as I reflect on this film as you need to know some of what happened to understand the parable.
Reading the Parable
Essentially, throughout the film, we have a number of people who are unique, different, and in some ways flawed. This seems to be the underlying connecting point in all the characters. Everyone has a flaw, everyone has a point of difference that is seen as a problem. The girl Joni has a birthmark on her upper chest. Jim’s father has issues with intimacy and grace. The coach at the soccer game is too focused on winning. Jim and Cindy’s flaw is simply that they are inexperienced parents. There are numerous such little bits and pieces throughout the film. All these flaws seem to be represented, then, in the leaves on Timothy’s legs. This is his one flaw that is the most obvious, but it also seems to play a central role in the rest of the film.
The movie seems to follow Timothy as he interacts with people at their point of flaw. Where their failing is, there is Timothy reaching into their lives and taking that failing and turning it around either into something to be celebrated or something to be redeemed. By the end of the film, everyone Timothy has touched has had their flaw and failing transformed (well, everyone except for the coach who may simply have been the comic relief). It is endearing to see that one life touch so many others and heal so many wounds, even wounds that didn’t seem they needed healing (Cindy’s sister for example). By the time Timothy left, everyone’s life was improved to some point, even Jim and Cindy’s where they could recognize that they could be good parents.
There is a primary symbol that is used throughout the film. It’s pretty obvious if you think about it. Leaves play a big role. There are leaves in the garden when they plant the box, we enter into fall where leaves are falling, trees and their leaves are all over the place, and most especially, Timothy’s leaves are featured prominently. One thing of note is the shape of the leaves. I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of the film-makers, but Timothy’s leaves are heart-shaped. For me, as I watched the story unfold, this seemed especially significant. However, in general, leaves represent life, they represent growth. You know a tree is healthy if it has plenty of leaves and they are healthy and growing. So, this image of the leaf seems to represent new life. Even the town was saved by leaves in the form of the leaf pencil. New growth and new life came from the leaves. In this, leaves also have to die in order to bring more life. Leaves are a good mulch, a good way of protecting the soil from erosion and weeds. When a tree sheds its leaves, it recycles the nutrients into the soil. It seems that leaves play this dual role in the film and again, Timothy is prominent in that.
At each point where Timothy has managed to bring new life to a person by way of what was their human uniqueness, he lost a leaf. The film explains it in the dialogue as just something that happens, that his leaves were falling off as a signal that his time was approaching an end. But the filmmakers seemed to make a point that, at each turning point, Timothy lost a leaf. When the uncle died laughing, there was a leaf. When Joni found a friend in Timothy, there was a leaf. Each time someone’s life was redeemed for the better because of the innocent grace and compassion of Timothy, there was a leaf. They found new life through the death of the leaf. And it seemed rather coincidental that everyone who needed the help had a leaf by the end, as if the number of leaves was predetermined. Timothy may have come primarily for Cindy and Jim (they got their own leaf when they realized that they were good people and good parents even without a biological child), but he also seemed to have a purpose in the rest of the community. New life came to Stanleyville through the “death” of Timothy and his leaves.
The Christian Dialog
Life through death is a very important theme in Christianity. Jesus himself pointed out that his death was crucial to his ministry on earth. In John 12, in predicting his death, he points out this necessity.
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. John 12:23-26 NIV
Without Jesus death, there would be no resurrection. Without the resurrection, there would be no hope for a new life and death would be something to be feared. The life eternal that the follower of Jesus enjoys begins with the identification with the risen Christ. Before growth can happen, something must die.
To this extent, The Odd Life of Timothy Green expresses this eternal truth that new life comes through death. But even more importantly, through the sacrificial giving of oneself. Timothy didn’t just die, he gave himself away. He came for a time for the sole purpose to give himself to a community of people who needed to know there was hope and love and life. If this sounds familiar, you’d be right. I think Timothy is definitely a Christ-figure in this film parable. You have to be careful, though, that you don’t get into the cyclical life of some of the Eastern religions, but I don’t think this film does that. There is no sense that Timothy is coming back in some other form or some other way. He gave himself, one leaf at a time, to the people of the community.
In the heart-shape of the leaves, it seems the film-makers were also pointing out something else that comes with this giving of oneself. Every gift that Timothy gave was one of love. These gifts weren’t just things he did, he was genuine in the way he gave. His quiet, contemplative self seemed to draw people to him where he could just show them the compassion and love that they sorely needed (note the gift of a cup of cold water to the grandfather). Christian service and sacrifice to others is not something done out of duty, obligation, or following a set of rules. It is done out of a genuine, heart-felt love of other human beings.
There may be a subtle turn away from one Christian idea, though. In the film, the changes that happened to people were changes that they learned for themselves and discovered for themselves by interacting with others. For Christians, the change is deeper than that. To some extent, it is through our interactions with people that we learn and grow, but the permanence of those changes comes through the power of the Spirit of God interacting with us and dwelling in us. Spirituality is more than just connecting to other people. It is connecting to people and connecting to God. In this communal way, those little sacrifices of love have an immense impact as they are the “spiritual acts of worship” that Paul writes about in Romans and the “spiritual sacrifices” that Peter mentions in his first letter.
In all, though, I found this film moving. Yes, it may have seemed formulaic and trite, like a story we heard before. But I wonder if this is a story that we need to hear more often? How often do we criticize people for their flaws and failings rather than meet them where they are and love them both in spite of them and because of them? If more people gave of themselves like Timothy (like Christ) to help heal the hurts of the world, I wonder what our world would look like? What made me cry at the end of the film was only in part the loss of Timothy. What moved me more was the obvious transformation that happened with those two parents, Jim and Cindy, so that they could open their home and their lives to a child who had no hope. This is the life that comes through death.