Twelve year old Milton Adams (William Ainscough) feels his world is in crisis. With his parents, Jane (Mia Kirshner) and Bill (David Sutcliffe), stressing about their careers and finances, and the neighborhood bully, Carter (Percy Hynes White), tormenting him, he is constantly anxious. When Milton’s optimistic grandfather Howard (Donald Sutherland) comes to visit, he learns the secret to finding true happiness from a man who has seen the world and who has committed to living life in the present.
The cool grandpa is obviously Sutherland’s Howard but he is just a side character in a story about a boy named Milton Adams (Ainscough). His life is in shambles. The fact that his parents Jane (Kirshner) and Bill (Sutcliffe) are too busy to even pay attention to him and that he has to deal with Carter (White) and that the neighborhood bully, who happens to be his neighbor, starting to attack him, is making him anxious. Trying to go further than was probably necessary in a misguided attempt to help out his family, he and his friend Tim (Hays Wellford) attempt to perform alchemy in order to make gold. It isn’t until Howard comes along that Milton and his family learn the secret to true happiness.
If any of this sounds familiar, then you’re not wrong as the film’s plot does tread familiar ground so nothing here should be overly surprising. It goes through just about every cliche in the book which is ironic considering that the film itself is also based on a book, also called Milton’s Secret. Because of this, a lot of it will come off as very predictable and maybe not as exciting as intended. Being a family film, it has a message which happens to be about living in the now but unlike most family films, this one feels very deliberate with it.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as despite how familiar the plot may be, it still does it well. The material may not be the best but the likability of the characters can sometimes make up for it. This kind of happened here with Milton and Howard. Seeing that the film is told from Milton’s perspective, we see everything through his eyes. Kids and most adults will find themselves relating to his struggles with his home life and his school life. Milton himself may not be the most original character and he may not stand out very much but he was likable enough which still made him compelling to watch.
After his wife passed away 5 years ago, Howard has become more of a free spirit. He chooses to live his life in the here and now, that anxiety about the past and worrying about the future only make things worse and prevent him from finding true happiness moment to moment. From the outside, he looks like a hippie but the contrast in personalities made him more interesting. There is a lot more going on with his character which the film hints at but doesn’t really go much further with. That was okay since the focus of the plot was not him but rather his family’s troubles. Howard was more cliche as he served more as a means for them to get to their inevitable conclusion. He was still fun to watch thanks to his chemistry with everyone.
With the focus more on the family, the bully subplot didn’t go as far as probably should have, giving up with it around 2/3 of the film. Carter, himself, wasn’t too menacing partly because at least 80% of him was cliche and Milton’s parents did absolutely nothing about it. Due to his parents being busy all the time, Milton decided to keep this to himself. This stress looked real and impacted his behavior around his parents and his friends. It only took a pep talk from Howard for Milton to learn how to deal with him.
The acting here was decent with Sutherland standing out above the rest. His charm and screen presence elevated Howard above being a complete cliche and his chemistry with Milton, Jane, and Bill was great. Ainscough as Milton was good as portraying his inner conflict and was excellent alongside Sutherland. Kirshner and Sutcliffe were okay as Jane and Bill but they were the most cliche thing about the film. Michelle Rodriguez was okay despite being wasted as Milton’s teacher Ms. Ferguson.
Overall, this was a decent, albeit cliched, family film, elevated by Donald Sutherland’s performance.