This is a repost of our Timmy Failure review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The movie is now available to stream on Disney+.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is the kind of fun, PG comedy I’d see when I was growing up. However, these kinds of PG movies don’t get released into theaters anymore since the only films for kids are either animated films or PG-13 superhero blockbusters. A PG comedy like Timmy Failure lands on Disney+, and honestly, I’m fine with it because it’s a lot easier for parents to tune into this delightful feature. Tom McCarthy‘s adaptation of Stephan Pastis‘ books of the same name embraces its title character’s wonderfully vibrant imagination while never sacrificing the real emotional stakes he’s dealing with. Timmy Failure is the kind of film where a kid can pal around with an imaginary polar bear, but the polar bear also represents a fear of letting other people get close. It’s lovely.
Timmy Failure (Winslow Fegley) fashions himself a hard-boiled detective working the mean streets of a suburb of Portland, Oregon with his partner, Total, a giant polar bear who came to town since the polar ice caps are melting. Together, they run the Total Failure Detective Agency, but Timmy’s flights of fancy have a habit of getting him into trouble, especially since he tends to view everyone—his classmates, his teacher, his guidance counselor, and his mom’s new boyfriend—with suspicion. That’s not to mention Russian operatives that may be pulling the strings. While Timmy’s desire to live in his own world gives him a great sense of self, it inevitably makes trouble for everyone else in his life, to which Timmy can only respond in his signature deadpan, “Mistakes were made.”
What makes Timmy Failure work so well is that McCarthy doesn’t just see Timmy as a quirky kid who says “Affirmative” instead of “Yes” and behaves like he’s a noir detective. McCarthy and Pastis (who wrote the script together) realize that Timmy’s imagination, while fanciful and hilarious, is also his defense mechanism. The film skillfully paints in the margins of Timmy’s life like his dad walking out on him, how his mom is always busy with two jobs, and how Timmy has trust issues. Timmy Failure doesn’t come right and announce these difficulties. Instead, it uses Timmy’s imagination to illustrate why he has trouble getting close to people. So instead of Timmy just having a crush on a girl in his class, she has to be “The Nameless One” and maybe she’s in cahoots with the Russians.
I really appreciated the balance Timmy Failure was able to strike in showing how Timmy’s imagination is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. It’s the thing that makes him special and interesting and provides his bottomless self-confidence, but it also pushes people away and prevents him from thinking about the consequences of his actions. Because Timmy is kind of off in his own world, he doesn’t necessarily care about everyone else’s feelings, which can make him a little cold-hearted. But thanks to Fegley’s endearingly deadpan performance, we also see the emotion beneath Timmy’s actions even if he hides it behind a wall of self-serious behavior.
Timmy Failure is pretty much everything you could want from a PG family film that’s coming to streaming. If you burdened this movie with the cost of tickets, concessions, and the wrangling of children to get them to the theater, the film may not be “big” enough to warrant that kind of effort. But on Disney+, Timmy Failure is a total gem, the kind of film that kids could easily end up watching again and again as they embrace this defiant oddball, his fanciful world, and relatable anxieties like moving on to middle school. This isn’t exactly the kind of movie I grew up with since thankfully McCarthy aims for more diversity than the films we got 25 years ago. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is a movie for today’s young audiences, and it’s always cause for celebration when they get a worthwhile film like this to call their own.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made will be released on Disney+ on February 7th.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below:
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Boys State
- Crip Camp
- The Glorias
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- The Last Thing He Wanted
- Lost Girls
- Miss Americana
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- The Night House
- Palm Springs
- Promising Young Woman
- Run Sweetheart Run