Rather strange blend of after-school special and mystical uplift carves out some unique territory for mid-teen auds. Presence of David Bowie may mitigate death-theme turnoff a bit, too. But pic isn't arthouse fare, and it's going to be hard to get "Mr. Rice's Secret" out into mainstream venues.

Rather strange blend of after-school special and mystical uplift carves out some unique territory for mid-teen auds. Presence of David Bowie may mitigate death-theme turnoff a bit, too. But pic isn’t arthouse fare, and it’s going to be hard to get “Mr. Rice’s Secret” out into mainstream venues.

Original title, “Exhuming Mr. Rice,” more accurately reflects somewhat edgy work by helmer Nicholas Kendall (who made the rousing kidpic “Kayla”). The man in question is a mysterious Englishman (Bowie) who happens to live next door to 13-year-old Owen Walters (Bill Switzer), a boy coping with cancer. Rice seems to have been everywhere, and he offers spirit-bucking words to the boy — something that comes in handy when Mr. Rice, seen in flashbacks wearing stubble and suburban gardening clothes, suddenly dies of undisclosed causes.

The boy struggles with this trauma, and he’s not helped much by his friends, a particularly unpleasant bunch more into macho rivalry than anything like introspection. Owen’s parents aren’t that useful, either. In fact, they don’t make much more than a standard-issue impression; Canuck vets Garwin Sanford and Teryl Rothery do their best, but they’re stuck with J.H. Wyman’s boilerplate dialogue, which occasionally gets as on-the-nose as dad’s command not to avoid an even sicker friend (Richard De Klerk) who follows Owen home from the hospital: “He may represent everything you don’t like, but in the end you might have more in common than you think!”

Mr. Rice’s advice is similarly didactic, although he at least has the creepy twist of earning his wisdom by having lived for hundreds of years (shades of Bowie’s turn in “The Hunger.”) Not much is made of this angle, unfortunately, except as a plot device through which Owen, thanks to some posthumous tricks planned by his mentor — and that’s where the “Exhuming” comes in — can stumble on a life-saving potion, with which he does just the right thing in the end. (His little pal is sick again, you see.)

Pic, which has won awards at various kids’ fests, winds down with a good message, but it has some technical problems along the way. F/x never equal opening seg, which offers nifty tricks with a magical Celtic ring. And story is filled with small glitches, as in a certain dug-up grave that seems to be nicely turfed over the next day. It’s also hard to grasp why Bowie is shown only in huge, static head shots, as if he was never actually on location (in Vancouver, pointlessly subbing for small-town America). But biggest sticking point is tone, which never goes as ghoulish as wee ones actually like but may still appear unpalatable to their parents. Nice turn from Tyler Labine, as a punkish older bully with particularly horrid hygiene.

Mr. Rice's Secret

Canada

Production

A New City Prods. (Vancouver) production. (International sales: Horizon Entertainment, West Vancouver.) Produced by Colleen Nystedt. Executive producers, Beau Rogers, David Forrest. Directed by Nicholas Kendall. Screenplay, J.H. Wyman.

Crew

Camera (color), Gregory Middleton; editor, Ron E. Yoshida; music, Simon Kendall, Al Rodger; production designer, Jillian Scott; set decorator, David Birdsall; costume designer, Gregory B. Mah; sound (Dolby), Ralph Parker; sound designer; Steve Smith; line producer, Mary Anne McCarthy; associate producer, Sally Dixon; assistant director, Peter Whyte; casting, Carol Kelsay. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 3, 2000. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Mr. Rice - David Bowie Owen - Bill Switzer Stan - Garwin Sanford Marilyn - Teryl Rothery
With: Zachary Lipovsky, Jason Anderson, Tyler Thompson, Richard De Klerk, Campbell Lane, Tyler Labine.
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