Shortly after leaving the theatre, my fiancé, perhaps noting that I was still fairly quiet, asked if I was still trying to process Millions. No, I replied. Millions is not a movie one processes. It is a movie that one treasures, that one absolutely basks and revels in. What director Danny Boyle has accomplished with Millions is nothing short of a miracle, at least as far as today’s film industry is concerned. He’s made a film that is truly and honestly heartwarming, inspirational, emotional, and family-friendly, and done so without resorting to cliched plots and stereotypes, mawkish sentimentality, or manipulation.
Damian (Alex Etel) is a young, naïve boy whose family is still reeling from the death of his mother. Together with his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and father Ronnie (James Nesbitt), Damian moves into a brand new housing development and starts attending a brand new school. However, Damian just can’t quite seem to fit in. He’s too naïve, too inquisitive, too honest. So most of the time, Damian goes off by himself, spending time in a little cardboard castle he’s built near the traintracks.
However, Damian is not alone on such excursions. He’s often visited by various saints (yes, St. Francis, St. Clare, and St. Peter, to name a few, all have cameos, complete with golden haloes). During one such visit, Damian’s castle is destroyed by a duffel bag containing several hundred thousand pounds. Devout little Damian automatically assumes that it’s a gift from God and intends to use it to help the poor.
Damian tells Anthony of his plan but his older brother is a little older and wiser, not to mention skeptical, and starts using the money to gain influence at school and plans to invest it. Whatever they do, they need to do it quickly; Britain is on the verge of converting to the euro and soon, the pound notes will be worthless.
Guided by the saints, Damian goes about distributing the money to anyone who seems to have a need for it. In one hilarious scene, Damian and St. Nicholas stuff money through the envelope slot of some Mormon neighbors, assuming that since they ride bikes instead of drive cars, they must be poor. Things get a little more complicated as the boys’ habits become a little too conspicuous. When Damien gives a thousand pounds to Dorothy, a woman collecting donations at their school for Africa, their father gets pulled in as well (setting up a potential romance between Ronnie and Dorothy, yet another complication).
Of course, we know that money just doesn’t fall from the sky everyday, and soon enough, someone comes looking for the money. Someone who has his eye on Damian, assuming that the young lad can be easily intimidated and dealt with. But Damian has some help on his side from up above, and his overwhelming earnestness and innocence might just be more than enough.
By now, some of you might be wondering what’s the catch. After all, Millions was directed by Danny Boyle, the same director who brought us the twisted betrayals and machinations of Shallow Grave, the infamous toilets and crawling babies of Trainspotting, and the rage-filled zombies of 28 Days Later. Well, there is no catch.
There are no sudden twists, no shocking revelations (though there certainly are revelations). There are a few attic scenes reminiscent of Shallow Grave, but that’s about it. So if you’re worried that this might be an attempt by Boyle to pull one over you, don’t worry. Much like David Lynch did with The Straight Story, Boyle has channelled his considerable talents and energies in a slightly different direction, and has made a film that is far more accessible than anything he’s done before without betraying his artistic talents and potential (i.e. selling out).
As with all of Boyle’s films, Millions is full of amazing visuals. In the film’s opening scenes, as Damian and Anthony play in the plot of land and imagine what their new home will be like, their new home assembles itself around them. The saints all have subtle little haloes that float precariously above their heads. And in a scene that, in any other movie would’ve come across as entirely too sentimental and obvious, Damian follows a Christmas star of his own, donkey in tow, and the entire screen is bathed in holy light, illuminating his face like a cherub.
But Millions is not all flash. Boyle handles the story with amazing subtlety and skill. Obviously, Damian’s saintly visions could’ve been problematic. But Boyle plays them entirely straight. As far as Damian is concerned, the saints do exist, and so, for Boyle, they exist, too. (Just look at how Damian’s castle changes throughout the film.) Anthony may be selfish, but he still cares for his brother — he just can’t make any sense of him. Even Damian’s father, who is fairly tangential to the film, is handled well in both his attempts to cope with his wife’s death as well as his attempts at a new relationship.
But for all of Boyle’s talents, Millions ultimately works because of Alex Etel. Not only is he one of the cutest kids you’ll see all year, but he brings a realness to Damian that you won’t get from most child actors. He’s stiff and awkward, but he’s also entirely believable and honest. And because of this, he holds up wonderfully as the film’s emotional and spiritual core. In fact, my only real complaint with the film is that, while watching it, I realized that eventually this sweet little kid will have to grow up.
In interviews, Boyle has said that he went with an eight year-old for the part because, at that age, children are still innocent and full of faith. By the time they reach ten, the age of Damian’s brother, they’ve got one foot in the adult world and have started to lose that innocence, that childlike faith. That tension is played out wonderfully in the film, between Damian’s trust and Anthony’s maturity and pragmatism. Of course, the film’s final golden scenes ultimately reveal which of those is really more important, so strongly in fact that I still get choked up thinking about them.
Considering just how obviously spiritual this film is, it begs the question “Why can’t Christians make films like this?” Well, we have, but we’ve gone so far to the other side that they wind up being preachy and pedantic. In our version of Millions, everyone but Damian would get their comeuppance, their sins revealed for all to see. And Damian would probably be too good, too holy.
Boyle doesn’t do that. There’s obviously a message in the film, one that comes through loud and clear. But even with all of the emotion and drama in the film, he lets in just enough mystery, just enough wonder (if you doubt that, just look at Damian’s eyes) to elevate Millions above being merely yet another “inspirational” movie.