There are no millions in "Millions," but to two small boys in the north of England who come across exactly 229,320 pounds in a large Nike bag, the amount of cash may as well be that large. It's a bigger-than-life amount of money, and the problems and joys it brings with it are the focus of this lively and most unlikely film, a sweet-natured fable told with a whimsicality all its own.
"Millions" is unlikely not just because of its plot but also because neither director Danny Boyle nor screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce has done anything quite like this before.
The idea started with Boyce, who, as the father of seven, had no trouble responding to a producer's suggestion that he attempt a film about children, even though his body of work was largely serious stuff such as "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "Code 46."
As the director of edgy, rapid-fire films such as "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later," Boyle sounds like the last person you'd want to entrust with a story like "Millions," a parable about love, faith, materialism and the difficulty of doing the right thing.
But, in something very much like the miracles "Millions" deals with, Boyle's slick video style and affinity for loud music have proved a high-energy addition to Boyce's story, livening it up without corrupting its intrinsic charm.
This visual energy is visible from the film's opening, with two brothers — 7-year-old Damian (Alex Etel) and 9-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) — riding their bikes to the under-construction housing development they'll soon be moving to. In a trice, thanks to stop-motion photography, the walls rise from the ground and the building is ready for occupation.
The boys' family, however, is an incomplete one: their mother has recently died and they and their father, Ronnie ("Bloody Sunday" star James Nesbitt), are trying different strategies for coping with this disaster.
While Anthony soon figures out that losing a mother is an opportunity to hit up strangers for free sweets, Damian is going another way. In the film's central and most irresistible conceit, the lad receives a constant stream of visits from long-dead saints.
Damian knows these folks so well, he not only recognizes them instantly (granted, their halos are something of a giveaway), but he has memorized their vital statistics and uses them as part of a greeting, as in "Francis of Assisi, 1181 to 1226" and "the Martyrs of Uganda, 1881."
Damian is in fact hanging out in his cardboard playhouse near the town's rail lines with "Clare of Assisi, 1194 to 1223," otherwise known as the patron saint of television, when that bag of money arrives out of thin air. Worried about his history of imagining things, he shows the loot to his brother to make sure it's real. Anthony thinks it likely came from a robbery, but Damian is sure it must be from God.
After all, he reasons, "who else would have that kind of money?"
Adding an element of urgency to disposing of the treasure and underlining to audiences how fantastical this is, the bag arrives just before Britain's only imagined currency switch from the pound to the euro, which would make the loot worthless in a few days.
After ever-practical Anthony persuades his brother not to turn the money in to authorities because of the tax bite, most of "Millions" is taken up with the boys' amusingly conflicting ideas of how to dispose of it all.
While Anthony yearns for investment property, Damian, like the saints he idolizes, only wants to do good and "help the poor." His attempts to find said poor, involving homeless people with a yen for pizza as well as Mormon missionaries with a weakness for materialism, are exquisitely done.
The film's entire cast, including Daisy Donovan as a woman who catches Ronnie's eye and Christopher Fulford as a Bill Sykes-type bad guy, give expert performances. But "Millions" isn't even imaginable without the wonderful debut performance of young Etel as Damian, a baby-faced moralist who periodically breaks into smiles you have to love.
Etel plays a deadly serious little guy who is such a complete naif that he literally cannot tell a lie, yet his commitment to this daft scenario is so complete that we are compelled to believe it's all happening. Despite being a pure fantasy that relishes not making literal sense, "Millions" retains a conviction about what it's doing that makes us believe and enjoy.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, language, some peril and mild sensuality
Times guidelines: suggestion of romantic activity
Alex Etel... Damian
Lewis McGibbon ... Anthony
James Nesbitt ...Ronnie
Daisy Donovan ...Dorothy
Fox Searchlight Pictures and Pathé Pictures present in association with the UK Film Council and BBC Films, a Mission Pictures production in association with Inside Track, released by Fox Searchlight. Director Danny Boyle. Producers Andrew Hauptman, Graham Broadbent, Damian Jones. Executive producers François Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Duncan Reid, David M. Thompson. Screenplay Frank Cottrell Boyce. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor Chris Gill. Costumes Susannah Buxton. Music John Murphy. Production design Mark Tildesley. Art director Denis Schnegg. Set decorator Michelle Day. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In limited release.