...shining light on the media, one review at a time
With every successful family-friendly production the sponsorship of P&G and Walmart has churned out, they’re making a statement to Hollywood. Yes, family entertainment can be free of offensive content, uplifting, well-made, and entertaining. But what about exciting? Family movies are so often dramas or comedies that some viewers, and Hollywood, it seems, assume that action genres don’t mesh with family fare. Enter P&G’s Who Is Simon Miller?, a movie that proves the impossible is possible. A new genre has been born—family spy thriller.
Aimed more at teens and adults, while still being harmless enough for younger family members, Simon Miller is the Spy Kids for older viewers. The two films share a similar premise, but, in terms of content, Simon Miller puts the well-known Spy Kids to shame. The crudity and goofiness of the more childish series is nowhere to be found in Simon Miller, which instead features a welcome emotional depth and mature approach to family issues. The production values cannot compete with the polish, slick CGI, and imaginative heights of the Spy Kids series, but Simon Miller is still a well-made film with an exciting story and enough unblemished positive themes to make it the spy (thriller) to trust.
A normal weekday in the Miller household is much like any average American family’s daily life. Meredith, a professional chef, gets home from work and calls to check in with her husband, Simon. He sounds harried, but being a geologist who gets called to go all over the nation to help with oil related emergencies can be a taxing job.
Meredith’s life can be pretty tiring, too, since she has to pick up the slack left by a husband and father who is only home for about fifteen minutes at a time. When Meredith gets called in to her teenage daughter’s school, she has to face alone the news that Sarah was caught cheating. Sarah emphatically denies that she cheated, but the evidence is hefty and Sarah isn’t ready to give her disbelieving mother an explanation. At least the Miller’s son, Kevin, is staying out of trouble and quietly pursuing his computer programming interests.
Meredith could use some help, but she doesn’t get much from Simon, who again comes home only to get called away before dinner is ready. Promising he’ll be back for Sarah’s hearing at the school, Simon goes off on another business trip, leaving his bereft family behind. Meredith is good at understanding, but even her patience is stretched when Simon doesn’t come in on the train he was supposed to, doesn’t call, and is apparently going to miss the very important hearing for the accusations against Sarah.
Frustration turns to concern when Meredith hears from a woman at Simon’s work who unconvincingly says he has been delayed and that everything is fine. Meredith is smart enough to know when everything is not fine, and she decides to find out what is going on. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] A little digging leads to a key in Simon’s office that opens a garage with cars and computers she never knew Simon had. Worse, she and her teens find multiple passports with Simon’s picture but different names Meredith didn’t want to know he had.
Wondering who her husband really is, Meredith has to keep herself together enough to help her kids through their shock, while trying to find Simon for an explanation. When a call from Simon comes, his frightening warning is not what Meredith wanted to hear. Suddenly, the Miller family is pulled into a world of spies and intrigue. Despite the deception that rules in espionage, it may be only through this adventure that the Millers will find the truth about themselves and learn to trust each other.
With the U.S. facing an epidemic of fatherless families, Simon Miller offers a unique twist on the issue. The father in this tale is actually a positive example in some regards. He clearly has a strong influence in his kids’ lives, shows an active interest in their concerns and the development of their characters, and their love and respect for him is obvious. Still, he is gone most of the time, and the frequency of the absences takes a toll on his relationship with the teens.
This film also gives unusual insight into a less publicized effect of missing fathers—the burden that being a single parent places on the mother. Though Meredith is not technically a single mom, she functionally has to act as one, filling the role of father and mother while taking responsibility for shaping her teens and being there for them on a daily basis. Meredith performs this double-duty as well as any person could, but it’s still not enough for the teens who need their father, as well as their mother.
The determined Meredith takes the same responsible approach to her marriage, which is also strained because of Simon’s frequent absences. Meredith expresses her desire to “take care” of her husband verbally, as well as through her actions. “Love is patient, love is kind,” has a living example in Meredith’s treatment of her husband. Despite a situation that would bring out the worst in many wives, Meredith never nags or questions Simon. She is constantly supportive, even when she is disappointed by his departures and aware that everything may not be as it seems.
The example that Meredith sets is particularly inspiring as she demonstrates to her teens the essentialness of trust in marriage. She admits, for example, to being “furious” with Simon, yet her actions and words exemplify nothing but a constant determination to love and trust her husband, even when all evidence seems against him.
Sadly, Meredith does not demonstrate that same level of implacable trust with her daughter. Therein, however, lies one of this film’s lessons, as Meredith, Sarah, and the rest of the family must learn to trust each other and earn that trust by replacing lies with honesty. Thus, though the Miller family is embroiled in the unwonted world of espionage, the most crucial journey they experience is one that all families can relate to and learn from. Even the sibling sparring that goes on between Sarah and Kevin is all-too-familiar, making the respect they grow to have for each other all the more meaningful.
With the exception of his mistakes as a father and husband, which are amply addressed in the film, Simon adds some positive character qualities to the story, as well. As a spy with a family, Simon is extremely aberrant among his colleagues. Yet it seems to be this very difference that makes him the only trustworthy person in a line of work defined by deception. Simon has a “real” life and people he genuinely loves. He demonstrates compassion, friendship, and kindness in a world that isn’t nice to the softhearted.
Not surprisingly, then, Simon’s reason for being an agent is in great contrast to most spies seen in movies. Rather than wanting the thrills or craving the violence, Simon wants to make the world a safer place for his family and all families. He even speculates that the purpose of living may be to help people who are in need. From a Christian standpoint, this hypothesis comes up a bit short, but is still laudable and expresses the truth in part.
Simon Miller, however, is not a Christian film, nor does it try to be one. Given that fact, it is all the more miraculous that the many positive messages in this film are unsullied by the negative content so common in secular films. A commitment to making this film truly appropriate for families of all ages is obvious, and the filmmakers prove themselves up to the challenge of finding creative ways to convey the excitement and even violence usually associated with espionage without graphic content.
Scenes with hand-to-hand combat are cleverly cut and choreographed so as to be realistic without showing disturbing details. Importantly, any fighting done by the Millers, including Simon, is only necessary in self-defense or to defend others. As a result, no math skills are required to calculate the unbelievably low body count in this spy thriller.
There’s a bit of light name-calling between Sarah and Kevin, but even this aspect is handled delicately. Sarah uses indirect wording and the harshest terms she employs are “geek” and “nerd” or derivations thereof. While Sarah never apologizes for the way she behaves toward her brother early in the film, she does learn to view and treat him with respect by the end of the story. Otherwise, no offensive language appears in the film.
In the rather idyllic package of Simon Miller, the few problems come with the delivery. The production values in general are solid and up to the standards found in most TV movies. That means that a few areas are not as good as they could be. The cinematography is well-executed, showing the creativity to change styles to match the pacing of the story action, but lacks artistry or any apparent effort toward visual beauty.
The screenplay is also not without fault, as several elements of the tale are quite implausible and unrealistic. This weakness is at least partially balanced by accurate dialogue and authentic characters, whose engaging story premise helps to overcome the unbelievable plot moments. In an age in which so many films are shot at (or very near) the actual locations in the story, it is also too obvious, at times, that this movie was not filmed in the European locations cited in the script.
As in the case in many such TV movies, the acting is inconsistent, with some very strong players juxtaposed with weaker ones. Loren Dean as the title character, Simon Miller, gives a disappointing showing for a top-billed cast member. His performance is not horrible by any means, but adds nothing of the depth needed to bring his rather complex character to empathetic, relatable life. Drew Koles, playing the role of Kevin, does well at times, but also shows his inexperience in some moments, matching several of the adult actors in smaller parts who seem equally uncertain.
The most central role of the film, however, actually belongs to Robyn Lively as Meredith Miller. In Lively, Simon Miller gets its biggest boost as she turns in a nuanced, emotionally-moving performance that makes her character the appealing touchstone for the picture. To back her up, Skyler Day also gives a strong showing as Sarah. Since at least one of these two actors is in most of the film’s scenes, the lack of acting depth elsewhere isn’t very noticeable under the umbrella of their performances.
Though perhaps not all it could be, the production quality of Simon Miller is enough to convey the blend of family-friendly action and positive messages that makes this movie unique. Thanks to the filmmakers’ commitment to clean entertainment, viewers can experience pure enjoyment of suspense and excitement without pausing for winces prompted by offensive content.
So who is Simon Miller? Turns out, he’s a pretty normal guy who’s a lot like most of us—someone who lets busyness, career, and dishonesty take him away from relationships with those he loves most. The movie lets viewers see the damage such actions, even if done for right reasons, can cause and, best of all, how to change for the better and complete the best mission in the end.