After finding international success with his spiritual teachings through best-selling books The Power of Now and A New Earth, author and counselor Eckhart Tolle set his sights on children in 2008 with Milton’s Secret and its blatantly synergistic subtitle to those previous works “An Adventure of Discovery through Then, When, and the Power of Now.” Written in collaboration with Robert S. Friedman and illustrator Frank Riccio, this tale focuses upon the titular eleven-year old (soon-to-be twelve) boy as an example of the internal transformative power we all possess to stop letting the past and future dictate our actions. With help from his grandfather Howard, Milton discovers how to live in the now as the proactive person he wants to be rather than the reactive one he had become.
Adapted by director Barnet Bain and co-writers Sara B. Cooper and Donald Martin, the cinematic version of this children’s book retains an air of wonder steeped in simple resonate clichés for younger viewers enduring the same hardships as Milton Adams (William Ainscough). Being bullied at school by his neighbor Carter (Percy Hynes White) is the least of his worries as life at home proves even more distressing thanks to rising tensions between realtor mom Jane (Mia Kirshner) and stockbroker dad Bill (David Sutcliffe). Both are barely staying above water after the market crash turned their careers upside down and they’ve lost sight of family in the process. Only upon the arrival of her father Howard’s (Donald Sutherland) newfound, calm hippie sensibilities can their malaise begin to dissipate.
The film deals with odd concepts that come into clearer focus knowing Tolle’s vocation as a spiritual influencer. There’s alchemy, yoga breathing techniques, and soothing seaweed tea, but none are too complex to alienate its target audience. The tea is humorous when coupled with Howard’s meticulous process of brewing it on a diner’s Formica tabletop and the breathing a welcome internal practice to quiet the whispered monologues of worry Milton combats each and every day. Alchemy is the topic that would normally be too unwieldy for children, but the authors combat this by portraying it as a fantasy. Milton and best friend Tim (Hays Wellford) don’t need to know exactly what it is they’re attempting, just the potential that the fruits of their labor may produce gold.
A ton of themes are bandied about through a prism of fear from friendship, parenting, public speaking, love, and bullying. Milton fears his parents will divorce if they don’t find money. Jane thinks they’ll lose the house and Bill is approaching the point of no longer being able to justify his notion that “they don’t have to worry yet.” Carter’s a ball of anxiety caught within a volatile home, lashing out violently at the weak; Tim’s so scared of becoming this bully’s next target that he’s more willing to close his mouth and eyes when his best friend is attacked than help. And even G-Pop Howard has some fear inside him despite what appearances show. Never happier with his own life, his fear is for the Adamses instead.
And it’s all circling an important date on the calendar: Parents’ Day. Under the tutelage of Ms. Ferguson (Michelle Rodriguez), each student in Milton’s class must write and orate a speech about a topic of their choosing. There’s not only the trepidation that the simple act of speaking in front of a hundred people provides, but also the realization twenty-first century living makes it hard for parents to actually show up and watch. So much is therefore entering the equation of Milton’s crippling fear. He sees Mom on Planet Future and Dad on Planet Past and he has no clue whether Planet Fear’s orbit has taken him too far from either. It’s actually a somewhat ingenious distillation (I assume having not read his books) of Tolle’s teachings for developing minds.
There’s universality at play with more than a few moments showing how adults are as fallible as kids. Dads can be bullied, moms can need caring, and sometimes a single text message of support can be enough to brighten the darkest day. As Grandpa introduces early while remembering his time in the war, forgiveness is always our most powerful tool to combat life. We must forgive those who harm us, those who let us down, and most importantly ourselves. Are things as easy and seamless as they appear here? No. But this film is based on a 40-page picture book for kids aged 8 to 11. The idea is to present hardships and show possible solutions. The goal is for viewers to realize every success achieved starts from within.
I liked the quirk of Sutherland’s kookily sage grandfather letting his own evolution from the man he was speak for itself. We all have the capacity to change if we’re willing to take that first step. Sometimes we need our kids to call us out on our own bullshit too. Jane and Bill can tell Milton he’s their number one priority, but always having their phones to always only be half present in the “now” isn’t lost on him. Children pick up on the tensions of their proximate world. They choose to shoulder responsibilities that aren’t theirs because the fear of those around them is contagious. I dislike the idea of a “spiritual teacher” like Tolle, but I can’t lie and say the message posited isn’t a powerful one.
Milton’s Secret hits VOD and limited release in Los Angeles on Friday, September 30th.