It takes about 13 minutes for Donald Sutherland to first appear in “Milton’s Secret,” and for those 13 minutes (and perhaps a few more), one can still hold out hope that something will rescue this televisual Canadian production from its terminal blandness. Alas, even a prickly pro like Sutherland can’t do anything to elevate a hokey self-help lecture disguised as family entertainment.
Based on a kid-lit novel by bestselling (and Oprah Winfrey approved) “The Power of Now” author Eckhart Tolle, “Secret” centers on 11-year-old Milton (William Ainscough) and the journey he undertakes in learning how to process the stress of dealing with a school bully, a work-obsessed father (David Sutcliffe), and a neurotic mother (Mia Kirshner) who frets about the family’s economic stability.
The solution to Milton’s problem arrives in the form of Hawaiian-shirt sporting grandpa Stewart (Sutherland), who has radically changed from his days as a chilly, self-absorbed, military man and teaches his grandson how to live in the moment rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future.
Director Barnet Bain has only one other helming gig to his credit (the all-ages obscurity “The Lost & Found Family”), but the earnestness with which he approaches the story’s well-intentioned hippie-dippie clichés falls right in line with his highest profile work as a producer on “The Celestine Prophecy,” “Homeless to Harvard,” and “What Dreams May Come.”
There’s a modest kick to seeing Sutherland essay a blissed-out seventysomething Zumba-enthusiast, but the script by Bain, Sara B. Cooper, and Donald Martin doesn’t give him any notes that are particularly juicy to play. Kirshner at least provides a suitable sparring partner as the disgruntled daughter who lashes out at the father who learned his lessons too late in life to benefit her.
But the only person who truly feels unpredictable here is Michelle Rodriguez, inexplicably cast as Milton’s teacher, and looking like she might punch out any random student who gives her a bad vibe.
Negative vibes are what “Milton’s Secret” hopes to help its viewers overcome, but it’s difficult to ascertain exactly who the film’s target audience is meant to be. Kids will surely be bored by the amount of time spent on adult characters arguing over money and family resentments, while adults won’t be interested in the story’s kid-focused perspective on learning to process anxiety. With a day-and-date release on-demand and in a handful of theaters, “Milton’s Secret” is in little jeopardy of being exposed.