That Whole Free Will Thing
“Millions” is one of those perpetually incomprehensible concepts. What can so many zeroes mean? This question is especially pronounced when you’re seven years old, as is the protagonist of Danny Boyle’s new film, called, as it happens, Millions. Young Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) does his best to make sense of the number as it applies to money, specifically, a duffle bag full of British pounds that drops literally out of the sky onto his cardboard box playhouse, located near the train tracks.
The fact that the actual cash doesn’t come close to millions is beside the point. For Damian and his slightly older brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), the sheer weight of the bag is impressive. They hide it under a bed in their new home in the Manchester burbs; they’ve just moved with their newly widowed dad, Ronnie (James Nesbitt), in a flurry of moving lorries and boxes and spanky-white walls that opens the movie. (Dad’s not exactly settled into the whole single parent business, encouraging Damian on his first day at his new school, “Be clever, you like to be the cleverest, yeah?”). Anthony decides that it’s best not to burden dad with news of Damian’s find (dropped off a passing train by some too-clever-for-their-own-good robbers, accepted by the devout Damian as a gift from God, and by Anthony just because). According to Anthony’s solemn and knowledgeable assessment, dad will only be upset, because of “the tax.”
And so the boys endeavor to deal with the money themselves. This even as they are also negotiating the strangeness of the new place and neighbors, who include a house full of Mormons and a local cop who gathers them all together for an instruction on how to avoid being robbed during the upcoming Christmas season; this brisk, comedic scene underlines for the boys that they should be worried about money and all things material, not only in possessing and protecting them, but also in their more “spiritual” aspects. Their worry is exacerbated by the urgency in front of them; awesomely tacky, “seasonally” themed ads on the telly remind them daily of the upcoming change in the national currency, as they have only a couple of weeks before the Euro is instituted and they’re stuck with a bag full of valueless paper.
Their approaches to the problem differ according to age and temperament. Damian, being a major fan of the Catholic saints—he knows them all by name and story, and they visit him in imaginary form, made visible here—believes he should give the money “to the poor.” Being a couple of years older, Anthony is less convinced of this notion, being just slightly older and so cognizant of what a bag loaded with cash might mean to them as good consumers—he imagines videogames, cell phones, new shoes, and finally, following some internet research, real estate.
As they wrangle over particulars, Damian decides to start giving the money away secretly to whatever “poor people” he can find, a harder task than he first imagines. This choice is in large part premised on his very down-to-earth understanding of the saints, who stop by to make suggestions. During these visits, they appear refreshingly unsaintly (that is, still in touch with earth and broadminded), helpful but never quite stepping over into preaching. St. Clare smokes a cigarette in front of him, noting that in heaven, “You can do what you want”; St. Francis of Assisi calls himself the “patron saint of television,” as he does his work by sending “visions” to those in need of guidance, in order to “straighten ‘em out”; and St. Peter observes that, while he has some ideas about what Damian should be doing, “I can’t say too much about this, because of that whole free will thing.”
As if to illustrate, Millions includes the occasional obstacle, testing Damian’s resolve and mettle. One of these comes in the form of a scary stranger, plainly “poor” (Christopher Fulford). When Anthony sees his little brother speaking with this man, he steps in and warns Damian, “People are weird, you shouldn’t really talk to them.” But it’s too late, as Damian has revealed the general information that he has “money,” and Scary Guy means to have it. Or maybe not. Millions sustains a vibrantly colored, delightfully lively view, fantastic to reflect Damian’s perspective, literally short and practically limited. Consistent with this view, the child’s generosity eventually does give away the secret. At school, when he and classmates are asked by a nice lady, Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), “Who feels sorry for poor children?” all their hands shoot up into the air. “That’s the correct answer!” she exclaims, then proceeds to ask them for their lunch money, to be sent off to help poor children in Africa; Damian contributes a wad of bills.
Ronnie’s reaction to the money is not so different from Anthony’s (spend what you can and need to spend, in order to improve your circumstances). While the movie is plainly fondest of Damian’s broadly munificent approach, it is sympathetic to and intelligent about his dad’s more earthbound concerns. And indeed, the script, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (who has worked repeatedly and to great effect with Michael Winterbottom), grapples with “adult” issues—dad’s dating Dorothy, the simultaneous severity and surreality of religious dictates, the politics that shape and are shaped by a commercial culture run amok. And because it considers such issues seriously, even amid the whimsy of Damian’s world, Millions resists the typical pandering and farty excesses of so many U.S.-made “kids’ films.” Rather, it manages a sophisticated breakdown of global economies and national identity, filtered through a child’s brilliantly naïve perspective.