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.Discussion starters
- Compare and contrast the worldviews of Damian and Anthony. How are they different? Why is it that ten year-olds are often very different than eight-year-olds in their behavior and attitude?
- Is it easy to be charitable? What is it about us that holds us back from giving as generously as Damian? What is it about the world around us that makes it such a complicated endeavor to help the poor?
- Do you think the film draws us into a Christian worldview?
- What do you think of the way the saints are represented here? Did you interpret them as actual saints, or merely as figments of Damian's imagination? Why?
- What kind of man is Damian and Anthony's father? Is he responsible? Is he wise? Do you believe that he loves his boys?
- What kind of person do you think Damian will grow up to become?
- What are some of the excuses that people use to avoid giving to the poor?
- Think about the ways in which you use your money for the benefit of others. What might you change in the coming year in order to give more of your resources to help others? Is that a difficult thing to do?
- What does Scripture have to say about giving to the poor? What characters in the Bible gave to the poor, and how did they go about it?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Millions is appropriate viewing, and recommended, for most families. Children (and some adults) may struggle to understand the thick brogue. Millions portrays some behavior that might make parents uncomfortable if their kids are watching. Two of the film's grownups have a hasty fling, which disorients the children who see them in bed together. There's also a scene in which the boys ogle ads for lingerie on the Internet, zooming in on flaunted bosoms.
Photos © Copyright Fox Searchlightcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 03/17/05
Looking for a movie that encourages us to be better people? That coaxes us to consider the needs of others, without being overly ponderous or dispiriting? That makes us feel like a kid again, while equipping us to be better grownups? And a movie that kids will love, on top of all that?
If such a film appeals to you, then treat yourself to Millions, 2005's most delightful surprise so far.
Alex Etel, in a charming performance, plays 8-year-old Damian, the younger of two brothers who stumble onto an unexpected fortune. Damian, obsessed with the lives of the saints, sees this as his opportunity to do something saintly—he wants to give the money to the poor. But his selfish brother Anthony wants to use the money to become the cool kid on campus. Meanwhile, a shadowy character is lurking about, trying to get the loot back. With Christmas just around the corner, Damian will learn the hard way that doing the right thing can be more complicated than it seems.
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 (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), and it's wise, meaningful, laugh-out-loud funny, and relentlessly inventive. It's not just a satisfying family film—it's an exhilarating film. You'll leave the theater with a ridiculous grin.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves, "Millions is a rare and special family film: a moral parable rather than a morality tale; a film that combines high ideals and hard realities; a story of hope and faith in something more than Santa Claus. Which is not to say that Santa Claus, or rather St. Nicholas, doesn't show up. But when he pops on a bishop's mitre rather than the familiar red Santa hat, it's clear we're not in Hollywood movieland here."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says, "Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle refuse to leave any scene ordinary, capturing the imagination of children with vivid colors, unexpected angles and extraordinary graphics. The filmmakers also hit a homerun in casting … Etel as 7-year-old Damian. You can't help but love the kid. Boyle has succeeded in crafting a fanciful yet challenging movie." But he adds, "It also exudes strangely mixed messages about faith and money. Like so many films with religious themes, the faith of Millions is placed in human goodness, not God's goodness."
Many (if not quite a million) mainstream critics are applauding Boyle's achievement.from Film Forum, 03/24/05
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "The film isn't your typical kids flick. It actually takes time to pause and reflect, to examine the motives of its characters. The movie is a fantastic springboard to a marvelous post-film discussion, no matter what the age of your group. Millions … asks the simple question of what we would do with half a million dollars but also explores the nature of charity and poverty. Furthermore it asks how we balance our own happiness with that of those around us and those thousands of miles away. It's … that rare film that takes religious faith seriously and wonders how it would act in our modern world."
Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) says director Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce "never condescend to their young protagonists or their audience; they don't seem to be trying to make a 'family' film. Instead, they try to see the world through the eyes of their characters, and they invite us to do the same. The film also makes some nice allusions to the place of money in Christian tradition. Most significantly, the film could very well leave audiences wondering what to do with the money they have right now … and it does this without being preachy. Bravo."from Film Forum, 03/31/05
Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) raves, "Millions has a great shot at being the top family film of the year. Considering it's only March, that says something. Not only is it a great family film, it is a great film about faith and about caring for the world around us. This is the kind of film that parents should take children to see and then spend time afterwards discussing what they watched. Perhaps you can talk about how to spend money. Perhaps you can discuss what it means that heaven is involved in this world. Add to that discussion the lives of people who have been virtuous and exemplary—the saints who have informed our lives."from Film Forum, 04/07/05
Artie Megibben (Joy of Movies) says, "In the hands of a lesser director, this family-friendly movie could have been reduced to your typical, formulaic Disney drivel. Instead, however, director Boyle delivers an Oscar-worthy film that is both stylish and endearing. All of which means that your average filmgoer receives a gift that is indeed heaven-sent: A well-crafted movie that deals with topics they probably haven't grappled with since Vacation Bible School. Death, heaven, greed, charity and of course—that Hollywood unmentionable, God."
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Millions is a moving story, full of wonder and hope. It makes some affecting and useful comments on money and virtue, but at the same time utterly removes God from the equation. The religious symbolism in Millions functions purely as mythology, symbolic more of the goodness within Damian's heart than any good in the heavens above."from Film Forum, 04/14/05
Millions: Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) writes, "It demonstrates how the love of money corrupts even those with the best intentions, causing them to forsake conscience for greed. Not content to simply give us a negative message, however, as many films do, Millions also offers a way out. Redemption, it tells us, comes not when we hoard money, but when we give it away, to those who are truly in need."
But Robertson is bothered by Saint Peter's unorthodox explanation of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Furthermore, she's troubled that one of the Saints appears to the boy and smokes a joint. "Attention all nuns: it's now acceptable for you to smoke pot in front of schoolchildren." (Actually, the scene is meant to be humorous, as the Saint reveals that smoking isn't a bad thing in heaven.)
Elsewhere, Frederica Matthewes-Green (a Christian film critic writing for The National Review) writes, "I was surprised, then delighted, then honestly moved by this film. I'm a Christian, and I believe the saints are present around us in a way very much like what Damian experiences (in my case, invisibly, natch), but I sure never thought I'd see someone make the case on a movie screen. I'm grateful. And, yes, I think the movie does have a message. It's that we should give to the poor, and that our gifts do good, sometimes a great deal of good even with small amounts of money. It sounds sappy stated that way, but the film builds the case effectively, by storytelling rather than lecturing, and arrives at a climax that brought tears to my eyes."
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