Mr. Rice's Secret
Screenplay : J.H. Wyman
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : David Bowie (William Rice), Bill Switzer (Owen Walters), Teryl Rothery (Marilyn Walters), Garwin Sanford (Stan Walters), Richard de Klerk (Simon), Zack Lipovsky (Funnell Head), Jason Anderson (Veg), Tyler Thompson (Gilbert), Campbell Lane (Mr. Death)
Mr. Rice's Secret is a children's film about dealing with death. There are not many films aimed at kids that deal with this topic because, in Western society at least, we feel the need to protect them from it. Why? Death is part of the natural cycle of life, yet there is an enduring belief that children somehow cannot comprehend it--as if they are not part of that cycle and need to be protected from it.
Of course, there is one small segment of children who know death intimately: those with terminal diseases. The central character of Mr. Rice's Secret, Owen Walters (Bill Switzer), is one of those children. A 12-year-old who is fighting Hodgkin's Disease, Owen has spent a great portion of his life in and out of hospitals and chemotherapy sessions, surrounded by other children who are all-too-aware that their time on earth will not be as long as most people's.
One of those children is Simon (Richard de Klerk), a young boy with leukemia who wants to be Owen's friend. Owen resists Simon's friendly advances because his own group of friends doesn't particularly care for Simon, plus Owen wants to distance himself from a boy who he deems to be sicker than he is. Many adults, including Owen's parents, want to put Owen and Simon in the same category because they are both "sick," but one of Owen's defense mechanisms to protect himself from the emotional pain of his own condition is to construct a hierarchy of sickness in which he can feel better about himself because he is not as sick as Simon.
At the beginning of the film, Owen is faced with death in another, and in some ways more painful, way: His neighbor and good friend, a mysterious man named Mr. Rice (David Bowie), has just died. Owen's parents (Teryl Rothery and Garwin Sanford) don't want him to go to the funeral, but he sneaks to the church anyway and secretly videotapes the ceremony.
Later, Owen and three of his friends, Funnell Head (Zack Lipovsky), Veg (Jason Anderson), and Gilbert (Tyler Thompson), decide to sneak into Mr. Rice's empty house in order to watch the videotape. While in the house, they stumble upon a trunk filled with photographs and old letters, one of which is still sealed and addressed to Owen.
Owen opens the envelope to find a letter written in code, which he decodes using a special ring Mr. Rice had given him. This leads him to series of clues, each of which leads to more clues, which eventually leads to the answer posed by the film's title: What is Mr. Rice's secret? What Mr. Rice's secret is becomes fairly obvious early on, but it doesn't prove to be a real stumbling block because the real question becomes what will Owen do once he discovers the secret.
The construction of the narrative is clever in that it creates a boyish mystery-adventure that screenwriter J.H. Wyman can use to wrap about his larger themes about the relations between childhood and death. The film is in no way didactic or preachy about its admittedly heavy subject matter, which is perhaps its greatest strength.
The film benefits from several strong performances, especially by the young, largely unknown, cast. I was particularly impressed by Bill Switzer's performance as Owen. The role is complex and deeply felt, and it requires him to go through a number of character changes and mood swings without being false or obvious. He handles Owen's multifaceted nature extremely well, without once becoming cloying or disingenuous.
However, Mr. Rice's Secret does have a few problems, most of which are related to Wyman's script. One of the largest problems is the lack of presence by Mr. Rice in the narrative. By showing him only in flashbacks that constitute less than 10 minutes of the running time, the film creates a strong sense of mystery and aura around the man, but only to the detriment of the human relationship between him and Owen. How did they meet? Why did they become such good friends? The few scenes that Owen and Mr. Rice have together are so well done that it makes you yearn for more of them.
The only other reservation I have is part of Owen's search for clues to unravel the mystery of Mr. Rice's secret. It becomes clear right at the start that Mr. Rice has carefully constructed this scavenger hunt for clues--he wants Owen to find each clue and move closer to uncovering the secret. With that in mind, it is deeply disturbing that part of this preplanned adventure entails Owen having to dig up Mr. Rice's coffin in a graveyard in order to retrieve one of the clues, which is hidden inside.
There is a great deal of joking between Owen and Funnell Head (who enlists the help of his delinquent teenage brother) about what a sick act this is (not to mention illegal and, in some people's minds, a desecration). Their conversation is intended, I suppose, to lighten the mood, but it only emphasizes how severely out of place this particular plot point is. Obviously, Wyman intended for Owen's search to be a challenging adventure. But, there are so many other possibilities besides digging up a dead body that could have posed a great challenge. Perhaps the moment is intended to be symbolic--Owen's having to come face-to-face with death physically incarnated as Mr. Rice's corpse--but it doesn't work because the uneasy literalness of the scene is too off-putting.
If you can ignore that section of the film, Mr. Rice's Secret has a great deal to offer. It is that rare "family film" (I dislike using that term because it seems to imply a lack of anything that might make anyone uncomfortable) that challenges both the young and old alike to ponder something difficult, yet universal.
Dealing with weighty issues in films aimed at a younger audience requires a careful touch, and director Nicholas Kendall does a fine job of making Mr. Rice's Secret entertaining while also allowing it to about something. It is also realistic about kids and the fact that they cuss, they are often cruel to each other, and they often do the wrong thing. But, they often do the right thing, as well. Kids who see the movie will easily relate to the young characters, and hopefully will take away the lesson that, while Owen is hardly perfect, in the end he does what is right. Too many kids' films want to think that modern kids are shallow, attention-span-deprived simpletons who just want to be wowed with cool visuals and loud music. Mr. Rice's Secret is a film that might make them think.
©2000 James Kendrick