Director: Nicholas Kendall
|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.
|Year of Release: 2000
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
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 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.
Overall Rating: (2.5)