For the record, Danny Boyle’s theatrical gambits include a claustrophobic Hitchcockian thriller, a kinetic drug diary, an overblown fantastical romantic comedy, an uneven mainstream drama, and a postmodern zombie flick. This is not touching on the two broad comedies he made in his post-“Beach” lull, neither of which made it to US theaters, nor his semi-short film “Alien Love Triangle,” which was supposed to be released as part of a horror anthology film, but which has now been attached to a presumably solo release date in September. So Boyle’s latest genre-hop into the head of a dreamy, saint-obsessed seven-year-old boy isn’t completely off the map.
These days, in fact, making a children’s movie seems to be the hippest thing an edgy director can do. Alfonso CuarÃƒÂ³n’s output alternates between sex comedies and visionary adventures for the juvenile and juvenile at heart (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” being inarguably the best of the three Potter films so far). Wes Anderson is finally skipping the nostalgia for childhood and taking it head-on with a stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Jon Favreau, whose “Swingers” and later “Made” defined a type of late-twenties L.A. life, is wrapping up “Zathura,” a retro space escapade based on a Chris Van Allsburg picture book. And Spike Jonze, prince of the bright young things, is adapting Maurice Sendak’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are.”
This being said, “Millions” is an odd bird, somewhere in between a film meant for children and a film about being one. In a recent New York Times article about the New York International Children’s Film Festival (where “Millions” made its US premiere), Boyle was quoted as saying that though “Millions” wasn’t conceived as a children’s film “it’s very much told from the kids’ perspective, and that’s why it deserves to be in [the] festival.” The film’s protagonist, Damian (newcomer Alex Etel, selected from a nationwide search), is a wide-eyed boy who just moved to a new house in the Midland suburbs with his father and slightly older brother. The boys’ mother died not too long ago, and there’s an underlying current of trauma that cuts through some of the coyness of Damian’s magical realism-style visions of the Catholic saints. The new house, which, it’s implied, is a bit out of their harried father’s (played by James Nesbitt) price range, represents a fresh start for the family. The new development they live in is a smugly cookie-cutter suburban settlement that could be anywhere in the world, with identical houses lining lamp-lit streets, neat lawns, and a trio of blond Mormon boys just down the road.
Damian’s brother Anthony is a typically, even exaggeratedly materialistic tween, taking easily to the family’s plusher accommodations and new school. Damian, on the other hand, immediately isolates himself from his peers (and his bewildered teacher) by cataloging some of the more grisly deaths of the saints whose lives he’s memorized, and ends up playing by himself by the railroad tracks in a fort he constructs out of moving boxes. It’s in this self-made refuge that he imagines conversations with amusingly earthy versions of the saints who provide him with advice, and it’s into the refuge that a massive duffle bag of money literally crashes.
The arrival of the money creakily puts the plot in motion, and suddenly the dreamlike world we’ve been seeing through Damian’s eyes, of brilliant green fields of grass and eerie still suburban streets is lost to bustling trips to the shopping center and Anthony’s taking charge of what Damian does. Whether this is intentional or not, the shift of gears is jarring. The money, which Damian assumes is from God, as it appeared to drop from the sky, is actually loot from a daring train robbery, the details of which are recounted in a Guy Ritchie-esque montage in the middle of the film. The robber, looking for his cash, starts lurking around the boys, and, as it turns out, England is finally giving up the pound for the euro, which gives the pair only a few days to spend the cash before it’s rendered useless in the transition.
In the face of all of these contrivances, Damian only wants to do good, but he finds it notably difficult in the sheltered suburb in which he lives. In search of poor people to buy food for, he finds a group of grubby activists who are only too happy to invite more and more friends to dine out on his tab. He stuffs the Mormons’ mailbox with cash, and they go out and splurge on electronics. Everyone who touches the money becomes cartoonishly infected with greed and pettiness, including the boys’ father and a charity worker who visits the school and is drawn to the family.
By simplifying the message of the film to a rather didactic anti-materialism in the end, “Millions” is certain to frustrate most adults while probably not being enough to hold the attention of the average child. For a while, the film effectively puts us in the almost otherworldly grip of childhood. To then plunge us into a downtown filled with shoppers frenzied with Christmas approaching and the currency changeover has all the subtlety of an anvil dropping, and makes the actions and motivations of the angelic, snub-nosed, befreckled Damian unbelievable as those of a real boy. Which we hope wasn’t the point.
“Millions” is currently in limited release. For more information about the film, visit the official site.