Mr. Rice’s Secret

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Owen Walters (Bill Switzer) is a twelve year old boy with cancer. When his friend and neighbor Mr. Rice (David Bowie) passes away Owen and his daredevil friends discover a coded message among the deceased’s belongings. Always in search of a diversion, Owen is relieved to find that the coded message is intended for him and is a kind of treasure map. Owen finds a number of clues along the way before he locates the secret immortality potion with Mr. Rice’s exhumed body; a treasure he shares with his friend when his own cancer goes into remission.

This little Canadian film, intended for children, takes a frank yet hopeful look at cancer. The message of Mr. Rice’s Secret (1999) that how one lives one’s life is more important than how long one lived isn’t anything new or earth shattering but it is reassuring given the narrative context. J.H. Wyman’s script avoids the preachiness one expects from this sort of affair which is a welcome relief.

Director Nicholas Kendall’s style is workmanlike and economical. The visuals serve the story well enough but never attempt to tap into any of the subtext or symbolism of Wyman’s script. Kendall’s investment in storytelling creates a subtle distance between the viewer and the world of the film that allows younger audiences to engage the message of the movie without being disturbed emotionally by Owen’s illness.

Unfortunately, as is also the case with Andrew Goth’s Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999), David Bowie only appears in a handful of scenes; flashbacks where Bowie dispenses wisdom and truth like the wise old sage that he was. Mr. Rice’s supernatural sorcery brings a fantasy flavor to the proceedings but none of that wizardry is on display in Bowie’s scenes. For the most part Bowie just rakes leaves and answers Owen’s questions with profundities. Bowie being Bowie these moments never feel corny. The hushed voice and gentle humanity of the Thin White Duke gives an agency to these scenes that feels totally natural and compassionate.