Film Review: Milton's Secret

An oppressively earnest family flick that teaches a lesson about living in the moment, change and growth.
Specialty Releases

It’s always a pleasure to see veteran actor Donald Sutherland, who brings a touch of class to the dullest films. But even he cannot salvage the slow-paced, dreary (though undoubtedly heartfelt) Milton’s Secret, a family movie that teaches a life lesson. Devoid of any particular religious dogma (no references to Christ or God) it will nonetheless appeal to those who attend faith-based films.

Marking the directorial debut of writer-producer Barnet Bain, Milton’s Secret is inspired by Eckhart Tolle’s children’s novel Milton’s Secret: An Adventure of Discovery Through Then, When, and the Power of Now. Eckhart is a major player in the world of modern spirituality. His works—including The Power of Now and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose—have sold 20 million copies globally and been translated into 48 languages. Tolle is also a recognized television figure thanks to his dialogues with Oprah Winfrey and his webinars that have reached more than 35 million people through social media. He believes his teachings have prompted followers to a spiritual awakening that will be the “next step in human consciousness.”

Milton’s Secret tells the story of a suburban middle-class family in trouble, though short of financial struggles it’s unclear what’s tearing them apart. We’re told repeatedly it has something to do with Mom (Mia Kirshner) and Dad (David Sutcliffe) allowing their past regrets and future anxieties to define their lives and relationships. Their mindset has crippled them and, more serious, their 12-year-old son Milton (William Ainscough), who views the world and his place in it through their distorted lens.

Among Milton’s traumas: His parents bicker all the time and ignore him; he is brutally bullied by Carson (Percy Hynes White), a child monster in school; and in an effort to create gold (he sees himself as an alchemist), he manages to burn down his lab housed in the shed.

Things are not good. Milton desperately needs a guiding hand. Enter 80-something Grandpa (Sutherland), a free spirit who rides around the world on a motorcycle, drinks tea made of seaweed, plants flowers (he knows how to smell the roses), and attends Zumba classes that incorporate squats, lunges and hip-hop. He’s some octogenarian.

Milton grows very close to Grandpa, who becomes the real alchemist in the family. He teaches them how to live through example. Compare Grandpa and Dad’s tactics in dealing with Carson’s father (Stephen Huszar), who is even more of a bully than his son. Milton’s pop is aggressive and ends up with a black eye.

Later, Grandpa accidentally on purpose passes by and strokes the snarling Rottweiler belonging to Carson’s dad, noting how sweet he is. Grandpa also recalls his impressive talents as a local football player and how hard it must have been for him to give up his sport because of a bad accident. (Evidently he knows the man’s biography.) In any case, they have established a rapport. Carson’s father has been treated with compassion and has morphed into a gentler man.

It’s now up to Milton to rethink Carson. Before a school presentation, where each kid is slated to read a personal essay, Milton encounters a terrified Carson in the boys’ room. It’s not easy but he extends himself to Carson, saying he understands how he feels and encourages him not to be afraid. A reluctant Carson has softened and each boy views the other in a new light.

The presentation begins. Milton moves to the podium in front of a large audience with beaker in hand. It’s a present from Grandpa, who is in the audience alongside Mom and Dad. His essay entitled “War Between the States” reveals what he has learned.

“Whatever you put in the beaker,” he holds it aloft, “that’s who you are. Fill it with love and caring and the war will end. We can all change and turn empty space into gold. It’s alchemy.”

Grandpa is proud. Mom and Dad are teary-eyed. They’ve learned their lessons and they’re going to change too.

Enough said.

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