Millions (2004)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2005.
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A particularly reliable source once said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” When he said this, he was referring to children like Damian.

Damian is the young hero of Millions, and you’ve never encountered a hero quite like him. Unlike the Bart Simpsons and Malcolms in the middle of most family entertainment, Damian is not a self-interested troublemaker. He’s not defiant toward authority. Instead, he’s brave, imaginative, charming, unpredictable, and utterly virtuous. He’s also painfully naïve, and that’s why, in his quest to deliver an unexpected fortune to the needy, he’s in a world of danger.

The Unexpected Fortune has been the premise of quite a few comedies—most of them awful. But Millions comes from the hyperactive imagination of genre-leaping director Danny Boyle, and it’s wise, meaningful, laugh-out-loud funny, and relentlessly inventive. In fact, it’s 2005′s first fiction film to deserve the word “fantastic.” It’s not just a brilliant family film—it’s a brilliant film. Given the proper promotion, its contagiously high spirits could turn it into an Amelie-sized international hit. But Millions probably doesn’t have what it takes (i.e., sex and violence) to be an opening-weekend blockbuster in America, so it’s more likely to build momentum over time, as viewers come back from the theaters to tell their friends about it, wearing ridiculous grins on their faces.

More than any other film, Millions recalls Mike Newell’s sorely underrated adventure film Into the West. In that film, two irresistible Irish boys discovered an enchanted horse that carried them through a period of mourning after the loss of their mother. In Millions, two boys who’ve also lost their mother, 8-year-old Damian (Alex Etel) and his 10-year-old brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), share an altogether different secret—one that’s much easier to hide than a horse, but much harder to manage, and it ends up dividing them.

Boyle keeps us immersed for most of the movie in a world of visual splendor, reacquainting us with the energy and possibility of pre-teen adventures, only occasionally reminding us of darker realities like the nearby nuclear power plant. We see Damian and Anthony bicycling ecstatically through a vibrant field of yellow flowers, exhilarated as they explore the territory of a new housing development that will give them and their father (James Nesbitt) a whole new start—just the guys. Lying on the lot for their new house, they stare skyward and imagine their future, which appears above them beam by beam, tile by tile, materializing out of thin air in a dazzling flourish.

But when a suitcase stuffed with cash comes tumbling into Damian’s lap—literally—things change for better and for worse. Damian decides that the money was sent by God, and thus should be used to help the poor, while Anthony, already embittered by the encroaching realities of adulthood, frets about the 40 percent tax rate applied to sudden fortunes, and decides to use the money selfishly and covertly.

Despite their differences, the brothers must act quickly. Soon, British pounds will be replaced by the new Euros, so they’ve got to spend it, give it away, or find a way to inconspicuously exchange the bills into new currency. Finding a wise solution proves difficult. Worse, it seems easier to use the money selfishly than generously. Meanwhile, a menacing figure lurks about on the edge of the neighborhood, looking for the lost loot.

Damian is the lens through which we experience this story, and we fall in love with him. That’s largely because young Alex Etel is completely convincing; he perfectly manifests Damian’s conflicts and conscience. Damian’s virtue and vision stem from his unquestioning belief that God exists and is working everything together for good. He’s so open to grace and miracle that he’s prone to celebrating the arrival of envelopes that declare “You may already have won 10,000 pounds!”

Damian’s faith finds its shape in his preoccupation with the saints, with whom he converses intently when he’s alone. Saints don’t pop up very often at the movies, and that’s odd, considering how central they’ve been in the history of visual art. Boyle seems thrilled to have them at his beck and call in this film, and their appearances are delightful, small halos spinning like glow-in-the-dark Frisbees. Saints Anne and Nicholas stop by. Saint Peter offers a new interpretation of the loaves and fishes story which, while unorthodox, is a worthwhile lesson. But it’s the martyrs of Uganda who make the biggest impression on Damian, giving him a vision for future investments.

With his growing passion for Africa, and a bedroom illuminated by a globe that represents his comprehensive conscience, Damian’s bound for a future as a missionary or a humanitarian leader … or at least a U2 fan.

In fact, it’s surprising that Boyle wraps up the film without claiming one of U2′s euphoric anthems of compassion for the finale. But Millions is mightily inspiring anyway. In its lowest moments, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script—which he developed with Boyle and turned into a novel—toes the line of do-gooder sentimentality (Pay It Forward) and cute-kid-in-peril capers (Home Alone). Most of the time, though, it rises above family film clichés. Boyce respects his audience enough to portray the real world with all of its complexities and pressures. He creates kids who act like kids and grownups who act like grownups. The neighborhood policeman is not a hero, a crook, or an idiot, but he is a bit insensitive. The humanitarian worker who inspires Damian never becomes too angelic (even though the actress who plays her looks a lot like Emma Thompson). Damian’s father is, thank goodness, as three-dimensional as his boys, and he’s never reduced to being a fool, a lout, or a villain. Hard to believe.

Best of all, Millions refuses to tell us that saving the world is a simple process of good deeds. It instead focuses on the differences between the brothers’ worldviews, and how one’s perspective can determine the fullness of one’s life. Where Anthony’s “grownup” disregard for spiritual realities lead directly to his materialism and anxiety, Damian’s assumptions enable him to experience sincere joy as he serves others.

This isn’t the first time Boyle’s been drawn to the question of how to deal with an abandoned case full of money. See Shallow Grave, a much darker tale. Most of his work has revolved around the way that human hearts must strive against inclinations toward beastly behavior. Even 2002′s low-budget zombie flick 28 Days Later was a meaningful exploration of human depravity. This is Boyle’s first “family film,” and the genre seems to fit him better than anything he’s yet tried. While his reckless energy has made his career a hit-and-miss affair (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, but also A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach), his trademark enthusiasm with special effects and rapid-cut editing serves him smashingly well here.

Fortunately, Boyce and Boyle have the good sense to know that this story needs a more profound conclusion than mere special effects can offer. In the context of a Christmas pageant, they give the audience a glimpse of the only well that can satisfy spiritual thirst. And when the story culminates in a predictable exchange, Boyle choreographs it so beautifully that viewers will start passing around the Kleenex. (Is it just this critic’s wishful thinking, or does Damian have a transcendent moment while resting on a makeshift cross near the end?) Then, in a stroke of genius, the storytellers carry the film even farther to an unexpected, inspired, transporting epilogue, in which they seem to catch Damian’s optimistic fever. On that high, Millions sends the audience out feeling like … well … a million bucks.

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