Canadian director Nicholas Kendall's Mr. Rice's Secret is ostensibly about confronting mortality, but it's really a film about values. What makes it so special is that it's directed at children. Kendall's hero is Owen Walters (Bill Switzer), a teenager with Hodgkin's disease. Although Owen has a small group of buddies, life isn't easy for the "kid with cancer." No one wants to be around a child who's terminally ill. To make matters worse, Owen's closest adult friend and mentor, the mysterious and wise Mr. Rice (David Bowie), has just died when the film opens.

At the funeral mass, Owen notices someone putting a key in Mr. Rice's coffin, and that leads him to the mystery Mr. Rice has left for him to solve. It involves a treasure map, potions and a medieval code ring, as well as a ghoulish visit to the local graveyard. In the course of his adventures, Owen learns a few lessons about friendship, and about the importance of living a full life. For instance, he abandons Simon (Richard De Klerk), another teenage cancer victim, practicing the same sort of discrimination against the boy that others have directed at him. Owen also aligns himself with bullies, failing to appreciate the true friendship of Funnel Head (Zachary Lipovsky), one of his longtime buddies. In the end, Owen realizes that all of his actions are motivated by fear, and by his inability to accept his own mortality. Like all heroes, he's transformed, and so, by extension, are we.

The screenplay's loose ends, of which there are a few, will only bother adults; youngsters will be captivated by the adventure story into which the movie's moral messages are neatly folded. Mr. Rice's Secret features excellent performances by lead players Switzer and Bowie, and supporting cast De Klerk, Lipovsky, Teryl Rothery (as Owen's mother) and Garwin Sanford (as Owen's father). Keeping you entirely focused on Owen's emotional life, the filmmakers have created a movie which is didactic, yet not condescending, and inspirational without being corny. That's quite an achievement for any film, but especially for one that takes the high moral ground, as this one does.

--Maria Garcia