I would certainly short-list Steven Spielberg's E.T. as among the most important films I have reviewed in my quarter century of writing this column. And I can quickly wax enthusiastic about Mike Newell's Into the West, the story of two Irish boys' love for a magical horse. Both of these pictures fall into a broad category one might term 'family films.' Still, since I have no children and have not made a searching habit of identifying appropriate motion pictures for them to watch, I do not consider myself an expert on family-oriented cinema. Nonetheless, were I to look for a family movie to recommend, I would hardly think automatically of something made by Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting, a picture about heroin addicts with scenes I can't even describe in polite company, and Shallow Grave, a film about roommates who decide to bury an acquaintance rather than report his death so they can keep his money. But I'd be sorely wrong. For in his current Millions, Boyle has made a family film to make the heart take flight.
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Millions is the story of two young brothers and a loving father, all of them heartbroken over the death of their mother and wife. Seven-year-old Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his 9-year-old sibling Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) are being raised by their English dad Ronnie (James Nesbitt). Presumably trying to escape painful memories, Ronnie relocates his fractured family from a complex of row houses in the city of Liverpool to a nearby leafy suburb where the boys can enjoy private yards and rooms of their own. But as parents have long experienced when children have shown less interest in their elaborate Christmas toys than the boxes the gifts come in, Ronnie will ultimately discover that his sons are finding more refuge in the worlds of their imagination than they are in the 'safe' school to which he's relocated them.
The plot in Millions derives from a mixture of accident and faith made manifest. Lonely at school as the 'new kid,' Damian has the startling habit of encountering haloed saints in the flesh with whom he shares robust conversations. He also creates an imaginary world for himself along the railroad tracks that run behind his new house. He drags the cardboard boxes that have recently packaged new appliances into a weedy ditch near the rails and erects a multi-tiered fortress of fiber paper where he can hide and indulge his fantasies in private. Lying in flimsy brown seclusion, rocked by the tornado swirling off a passing train, staring up an artificial chimney into a sky of wonder and want, Damian dreams of fantastic adventure and divine intervention. And all of a moment, his dreams come true. Ejected from a speeding commuter, launched into an ostensible abyss, a duffle bag of transformation bounces through rock and stubble to crash into Damian's cardboard palace with the weight of destiny. Inside is British currency worth approximately $500,000. And what shall Damian do with that?
Among the many neat decisions in this film is the construction of Damian's character as one well-raised and adorable without his becoming saccharine and unbelievable. Damian has paid attention to his Sunday-school lessons, and he believes that the Christian gospel commands him to give his riches away to the poor. So he tries to buy pizza for some homeless people. And he drops a thousand pounds into a charity container raising funds for drought victims in Ethiopia. Brother Anthony, meanwhile, Damian's unquestioned confidant, thinks they should try to dedicate a significant portion of their windfall for long-term family security. But Anthony's efforts to make a bank deposit and purchase real estate are repeatedly thwarted because he hasn't yet reached an age measured in double digits. Complications multiply for various reasons: Britain is switching to the Euro and the kids' pound notes will soon be worthless; Dad has no idea that his kids have found a fortune; and the man who first stole the money and subsequently tossed it from the train arrives to get it back. In his young players, Doyle has found two absolute revelations, Etel in particular. The Oscars have never created a category for child performers, but just as Sarah and Emmy Bolger should have been honored for Jim Sheridan's In America, so ought the children in this work. Etel and McGibbon are never cute and self-consciously precocious the way Shirley Temple was or, more recently, Macaulay Culkin was in the Home Alone movies. The young players in Millions inhabit their roles so successfully, they don't seem to be acting at all. In addition, director Boyle's evocation of the intercession of the saints lends an element of magic and religious transcendence that stirs this old cynic's heart. I came to this flick with a disbelieving and skeptical attitude and left wondering whether I should shout hurray or whisper a prayer of gratitude for an unexpected encounter with grace.
- Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel, right) and older brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) ponder what they'll do with their Millions in Danny Boyle's latest film.