The great Donald Sutherland gets his best screen “entrance” since “M*A*S*H” in the Canadian drama “Milton’s Secret.” Backlit, still ’60s hip, warm and wise, the man still wears a Hawaiian shirt with class. Alas, it’s an entrance wasted on a weak-kneed, wan little picture for wimps.
In the film, the veteran character actor plays the twinkly grandpa who visits his daughter’s troubled family to lay a little zen on them.
Mom (Mia Kirshner, “The L Word,” “The Vampire Diaries”) is a struggling realtor, facing financial ruin if she can’t sell a house and therefor living her life by “orbiting the future.”
Dad (David Sutcliffe, a “Gilmore Girls” vet) is a down-on-his-luck stock broker “stuck in orbit around the past.”
And the kid, Milton (William Ainscough), our 11 year-old narrator? He’s being bullied, a child stuck “on Planet Fear.” If only he’d rat the creep out to his teacher, played by original “Girlfighter” Michelle Rodriguez.
Grandpa, or “G-pa,” as the kid calls him, will save their dying backyard garden, sip a tea blend that he calls “tranquility” and listen to every hippy-trippy Donovan tune from his youth to keep himself centered. He’s a combat veteran who has found inner peace. All he needs to do is share it.
“I have lived with many Zen masters,” he muses to Milton. “Each and every one of them was a cat!”
Milton needs G-pa’s lessons because he’s desperately trying to “fix” his broken family himself. He and his wimpy pal Timmy practice alchemy in an abandoned property his mom is trying to sell. If he can find a way to create gold, all their troubles will be over.
Save for Carter (Percy Hynes White), the punk who bullies Milton at school because Carter’s violent, frustrated ex-jock Dad takes out that frustration on his kid.
The script is based on the writings of meditation/life coach/ “Guardians of Being” guru Eckhart Tolle, a German who moved to Canada and apparently, fit right in. The Barnet Bain movie is adapted from Tolle’s “Milton” novel. It’s vintage “turn the other cheek” stuff, with much of the wit and wisdom coming from Grandpa’s mouth.
“You have to be skeptical of your skepticism,” he counsels. “When the Saints Coming Marching In” is his cellphone ring tone, a phone he refuses to answer during meals (driving his cell-addicted daughter and son-in-law nuts) because of an unspoken “Be here, now” credo.
He’s bought a Harley, is dating his Zoomba instructor. Grandpa is a cliche, or so he would seem.
His teachable moments are few and far between. I was hoping for a lot more of G-pa passing on the wisdom of a man of violence who found something deep and special, more overt scenes of that nature. At the very least, I was hoping for a “Karate Kid” level of spiritual instruction (certainly the way Hollywood would have treated this set-up).
But no. Canada. Trudeau. Eckhart Tolle.
It’s the sort of cinematic world where even the supposedly neglectful, self-involved dad is sensitive enough to stop and listen to his son, and to confront his son’s bully’s dad. It’s the sort of childhood where a kid makes a dangerous and potentially injurious and certainly expensive mistake playing with fire, and the adults — to a one — apologize to him.
Insipid, in other words.
North American culture has made bullying its current whipping boy, and it may be sociologically and psychologically sound, according to current thinking, to reason one’s way out of such a situation. Maybe that will work. There’s always a first time.
The ripple effect of bullying — Milton’s fear, his own unresolved anger rippling out from his humiliations by Carter — is touched on but not really resolved or explained.
Movies like this grate largely because of their test tube “solutions” to real world problems as old as the species. If you don’t stand up to a bully, even with the help of friends (Milton’s pal Timmy is Prince of Wusses), it will do a number on your “inner peace” for years. That’s simplistic and “Hollywood,” but it’s also field-tested.
What’s the lesson Milton should learn, that letting a disturbed, angry kid settle his psyche by lashing out at him will only earn Milton a bloody nose?
“Milton’s Secret” has a touch of fairy-tale unreality about it. And the movie seriously shortchanges Grandpa so that his feel-good life lessons — to his daughter, his son-in-law and grandson — don’t resonate, no matter how much Sutherland summons up his twinkle.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements involving bullying and adolescent issues, and for brief language
Cast: William Ainscough, Donald Sutherland, Mia Kirshner, Michelle Rodriguez
Credits: Directed by Barnet Bain, Sarah B. Cooper and Donald Martin, based on the bullshit of Eckhart Tolle. An eOne/Momentum release.
Running time: 1:25