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Milton’s Secret

September 30, 2016
Milton's Secret

I don’t know if anyone ever tried to mount a cinematic adaptation of Ram Dass’ Be Here Now. If they did it’s probably buried as an over-arty relic of ’70s counterculture. But as well-known as he was, his intellectual successor Eckhard Tolle blows him out of the water when it comes to self-promotion. His first book, The Power of Now, got the attention of Oprah Winfrey, and now Tolle is the “spiritual” equivalent of Drs. Oz and Phil.

He also took a page from glurge-masters Chicken Soup for the Soul: spinoffs can repackage the same product for wider and wider audiences. And so he wrote a children’s book. Milton’s Secret: An Adventure of Discovery through Then, When, and The Power of Now repeats Tolle’s platitudes for a younger audience, placing them into a narrative context surely familiar to well-off suburban white pre-teens.

And in a narrative form it’s a lot more amenable to be turned into a movie, courtesy of Celestine Prophecy screenwriter Barnet Bain. The result is Milton’s Secret, with a tagline making clear what you’re in for: Be Here. Now. It’s every bit as smarmy and self-serious as any of the evangelical movies that have been coming out in greater and greater numbers lately, but the well-meaning relative who pushes it on you more likely leaves their television on OWN than CBN.

Milton Adams (William Ainscough) is eleven. His parents, realtor Jane and stockbroker Bill (Mia Kirshner and David Sutcliffe), are having financial troubles, and worry about losing their house. It’s a lavishly appointed modernist number that’s easily twice the size of their neighbors’ bungalows, but I’m sure it feels very stressful to them anyway. And his neighbor, Carter (Percy Hynes White), is bullying him at school. Life is just awful for Milton.

Enter Grandpa Howard (Donald Sutherland). He was stricter when raising Jane, but in the five years since his wife died he’s mellowed out a bit. You can tell because he gets a needle-drop soundtrack heavy on the Donovan songs, quite rightly. He’s dating his Zumba instructor now, and when he sets to work fixing up the backyard it’s probably the subtlest aspect of the whole movie.

I admit, there is a kernel of value in Tolle’s philosophy. We do stress ourselves out more than is healthy, and could probably do with some calm reflection and centering. As I’ve seen it better put, we need to learn how to choose what to pay attention to.

Unfortunately, paying attention to the here-and-now rather than dwelling in the past and the future can only help reduce our stress. It’s all but useless when it comes to actually solving problems. Bill learns — or remembers, I’m sure Tolle would say — that the wines he bought before the downturn aren’t that important, and selling them can help make the more important house payment, but it’s just a stopgap that doesn’t fix the real underlying problems.

And as usual for self-help gurus, the advice is entirely self-centered. Milton learns to have compassion for his bully, who is just as scared himself, and is acting out because of his miserable home life. But that compassion just goes towards bearing his own situation. It doesn’t extend to, say, hearing Carter’s cry for help and intervening between him and his abusive father.

“Being here now” is antithetical to the idea of concern for other people, separate from us in space or time. Taken on its face, it precludes real compassion, and the sort of unselfish perspective that allows a truly healthy relationship between ourselves and the world around us. It is, in the end, a form of cowardice and xenophobia.

I’m sure that Tolle and his fan-base would say that it’s not meant to be taken that literally, but that just undercuts the whole project further. It’s a facile slogan, meant to make an audience feel good so long as they don’t bother to actually think about it very much. A syrupy-sweet candy that will only lead to tooth decay and stomachaches if not used very sparingly.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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