Ensconced in his cardboard shed by the railway tracks, 7-year-old Damian (Alex Etel) is mulling over the changes in his life: He's moved with his recently widowed dad and his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) to a new home. His contemplations are disrupted when an enormous bag of cash crashes through the roof of his retreat.
As you might expect, this monetary miracle sets in motion the delightful British parable Millions, as the two brothers tackle their newfound fortune. What is less expected is that this winsome charmer, a sweetly funny family-friendly film that doesn't play dumb to kids or adults, is directed by Danny Boyle, who alarmed theater-goers everywhere with his graphic forays into drug addiction (Trainspotting) and flesh-eating (28 Days Later).
Upon study, the bag contains nearly a quarter of a million pounds -- too much, really, for the lads to understand exactly how much that is. Basically, they know it's a lot because, unpacked and stacked, the cash towers above them. It would take a lifetime for two boys to spend it on their desires -- a double-scoop of ice cream here, a video game there. The rub is that it's only a few days to E-Day, when Britain changes over to the Euro. The booty has to be spent or converted pronto, or it's valueless.
Damian believes the money is a miracle. His active fantasy life is ruled by The Lives of the Saints -- those snapshot accounts of extreme life-and-death situations, occasionally tempered by fantastic interventions. Back on earth, Damian sorts out life with the intense literalness young children exhibit. Of course the money came from God -- it fell from the sky, didn't it? -- and as he explains, "Only God has that kind of money." Damian's struggle is pure: He truly wants to do good with the money, and his innocent fervency is nearly heartbreaking.
In his moments of crisis, he is visited by various saints who offer counsel; in turn, he asks if they've seen his mother. St. Clare of Assisi, patron saint of goldsmiths, laundry workers, and more recently, television, joins Damian in his cardboard hut. Firing up a smoke, she tells Damian that being good and doing right in heaven is easy: "It's down here that you have to make the effort."
While Damian channels the loss of his mother's death into comforting religious fantasy, Anthony treats his grief in more secular ways with a burgeoning cynicism and an affected sophistication. At 9 years of age, he covets the objects the money will bring, and has gleanings of the power such sums imbue.
Gradually, the money draws attention. In a funny scene, the next-door Mormon missionaries to whom Damian has made a secret mailbox donation treat their windfall rather publicly and impudently. But Damian's gift of hundreds of pounds to a trash-bin-for-charity at his school brings the adults in on their gambit, notably the bin's mistress, Dorothy (Daisy Donovan). Dorothy, a sweet sort of bore, consequently takes an interest in the money, the lads -- and their dad, Ronnie (James Nesbitt). And needless to say, the impending currency switch is heavy on the mind of the villain who was the intended receiver of the cash, and it has made him desperate to retrieve it.
Boyle speckles his film with sly winks toward its themes -- the lads attend All Saints School; they live in a house named "Serendipity"; and the TV plays Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He indulges occasionally in fanciful effects, but the film's greatest assets are its two young actors. Their performances are refreshingly natural, and they share an easy fraternity. McGibbon has acted previously, but Etel is a novice, an unknown plucked from piles of audition tapes.
Millions was shot on location primarily in Manchester and Liverpool. Previously, the north of England was noted in British cinema mostly as the setting for gloomy black-and-white kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960s, so it's another delightful surprise to find that Boyle has transformed this industrial heartland into a sparkly, fantasy-friendly playground. These suburban developments, still ringed with countryside, are a vivid palette of green meadows, tidy red brick homes and clear blue skies. That the sun shines brightly on such verdant landscapes at Christmas-time is an artistic license worth indulging.
In one respect, Millions is a fresh twist on the time-honored unexpected-huge-sums-of-money-bring-trouble morality play, but the winning story, penned by Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People), isn't content to be a mere cautionary tale about avarice. It's a wise window into childhood, where the adult world seems as inexplicable as a treasured fantasy world seems real. Boyce's characters struggle to do right, and to reconcile their faith with day-to-day living. Millions is ultimately about some of life's slipperiest and toughest tasks -- growing up, processing death and mending families.
In the end, we realize that everyone has really been searching for that something which cannot be bought -- though (and here's an ironic nudge) it's hard to argue that the money didn't somehow facilitate the felicitous turn of events. A confused Damian queries about the money at point, "Can you still do good with it, if it's been robbed?" Yes, Millions assures us -- if one's young heart is in the right place.