The recently released Milton's Secret is a rare gem that allows us to consider the function of film in our society more deeply. I really don’t care that it was inspired by Oprah favorite Eckhart Tolle; what I’m interested in is how it deals with the extremely complex and difficult question of bullying. Directed by Barnet Bain, the producer of What Dreams May Come and Homeless to Harvard has created an essentially anti-Hollywood film that attempts to answer the question and unpack the complexity of bullying in a refreshing new way.
If you’ve ever been bullied or met a child who was bullied, you’ll understand that the Hollywood prescription of screwing up your courage and punching the bully in the nose—in films like Karate Kid and so many others—doesn’t always work out in real life. And just as a true sensei will tell you that the martial arts isn’t about beating people up, even people who really deserve it, the approach proposed by the film isn’t about answering violence with violence, it’s about achieving a state of self-mastery.
The film features an essentially American family, introducing William Ainscough as Milton Adams, the coming-of-age protagonist, with Mia Kirchner and David Sutcliffe as his parents. All you need to do is add Mr. Miyagi's character—played by an endearing Donald Sutherland as the estranged grandfather, who shows up with a tea set and a love of Zumba. And like a Zen master, he doesn’t offer pat solutions, he offers koans.
In the narrative, the solution isn’t to "wax on and wax off." Instead, it considers mindfulness as the solution. This film is essentially the first film ever to suggest that a mindful approach might provide a solution to something as unmindful as bullying. And here’s the most important point—it’s not just the high school bully we’re talking about. It’s the bully of life in general: the mortgage payment that’s extracted like lunch money every month or else, the unstoppable flow of arguments between your parents that eventually leads to divorce court, the myriad pressures of life that extort any sense of fulfillment and joy and happiness in life. And at a meta-level, it’s about our inability to heal deeply embedded emotional wounds, that are passed on from parent to child in very subtle ways.
What is remarkable is how Bain and the cast faithfully reproduced the slow and painful reality of life. The entire first half of the film establishes cathexis in the form of a glacial torrent of petty injustices and pressures for the entire family system. The only family member with a life boat is the grandfather, who happily finds last love (in contrast to first love, which is promised but never fulfilled in the film because Milton has way too much on his plate). Grandpa is the only family member who isn’t addicted to his cellphone, like an emotional pain pump. He’s the only family member who can find the joy of tending to a simple garden, long ignored and in disarray.
The director is courageous. Instead of making a typical Hollywood formula film that offers an easy solution, he has aspired to be a modern day Kurosawa, by producing something that is spare, elegant, and captures the essence of stillness. His film is not your traditional three-act formula thrill fest; it’s a visual poem that doesn't try to answer every question neatly. It’s languid and subtle and models the mastery of the art of presence.
I’m reminded that his earlier project, What Dreams May Come, which is evocative of Kurosawa’s Colors. That earlier work has the same cadence, but keeps viewers happy with lots of CGI eye candy. In this film, he doesn’t resort to special effects. Instead, he allows for things to be revealed in a more subtle way, more reminiscent of real life. For example, the central scene in which the mother realizes that she is allowing her neurosis to be transmitted to her son, a less courageous director would have used an extreme closeup on widening eyes to illustrate understanding. Bain doesn’t. In real life, the aha! is internal, and what you see is the rise to action. So in the film, the mother runs out to her son, to insist that it’s his job to be a child and hers to be the parent. Not the other way around, which turned her into a mess in the first place.
Federico Fellini once said, “Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.” This is clearly true for this film as well. You can just feel how the director has sewn the fabric of his memories and wounds into this work. This is a gift, as he has poured his own heart into the project. You can see this because you can't help but cry when you watch it. I did, and my heart resonated with the flow of emotions.
But what does this film teach us? What makes it a must-see for parents with bullied children? I can explain my take with a story. I sometimes get odd work problems that need solutions. One was from a friend, who is brilliant with two Ph.D.s, but he ended up at an organization run by an ex-Marine drill sergeant, a classic bullying boss. The two were like oil and water.
My friend asked me for help. (Please note that I studied martial arts for decades, please don't try this at home!) So I slapped my friend hard enough to sting. I would never do this with others, but he was a close friend and I cared about him. And I did announce the slap, to get his consent. Nevertheless, he sputtered, “What the hell?!” I asked him how he was feeling, and he said infuriated, afraid, angry, pumping adrenaline. He said he felt like he wanted to kill me.
I said, “But really, at this moment, how hurt are you, really?” He thought about it and took an inventory, and replied that it really wasn’t that big a deal. I explained that in my particular style of kung fu, the students would line up facing each other, and slap each other to get over the fear of getting hit. I then proposed that his boss was not actually going to hit him, he was just using fear to manipulate him. Like with a terrorist, if you have no terror, they will lose. And so we spent a while slapping each other until he could let go of his fear of getting hit. Also, I pointed out that much of the fear he felt was that he'd lose control and hurt his boss. What if he uncorked that genie? Being afraid is a control dynamic, even allowing you to control others around you. Letting go of fear is to surrender to what is possible.
When he approached his new boss the next day, and his boss did his thing, my friend felt the fear but said the following, “Okay, if you want to fight, let’s do it. You’re stronger than me, and you'll win; but I’m not afraid of you anymore. I’m not afraid of getting hit. Let’s do it.” This floored his boss. Military men want team members with courage, because only heroes can be trusted. Once he shared this tacit belief, my friend understood his boss, and swore to have his back no matter what. And the relationship slowly turned into a lifelong friendship. Sometimes you can see bullying as a challenge to grow internally and to learn deep lessons about resilience.
In Milton's Secret, everything changes when Milton sees that the bully was even more terrified than he was. Everyone began to realize that the goal was to learn how to move beyond fear, into the space of love and hope and action. This was true for the entire family system as well, which had configured itself to be at the mercy of economics and neurosis. Everything you want is on the other side of fear. That’s the central message of the film.
Lisa Miller, Professor of Psychology and Education, and the Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, says of the film: “Milton's Secret is a film from which we all might learn how better to love, connect, and embrace the great abundance in life. The director reveals a possibility that is immediately within reach for all of us, just on the other side of our fears. Just like Milton, we can all awaken to the love before our eyes… and bust free from the prison of alienation, into the realm of the unitive love, the sacred and the beautiful.”
The take away: Just as a visit to a Zen monastery wouldn’t include the thrills of a waterslide, don't expect a typical Hollywood film here. This film is filled with unhurried measured moments—turning the film-viewing experience into a meditation. This will please anyone who practices Vipassana, but will and has infuriated critics. If you see this film in the right frame of mind, you will be delighted with a work that makes you think and keeps you thinking for days and days, turning it around in your mind like a koan. No wonder it’s getting a 98 percent rave rating among audiences. Milton’s Secret offers a message that is worth hearing, and considering, and discussing, and sharing.
You can learn more about the film at miltonssecret.com.
Also, you can learn more about the bullying epidemic in these articles: