There’s a fine line between optimism and naivete and between idealism and sentimentality. For every In America, which manages to be simultaneously wide-eyed, sad and uplifting, there are at least three relatives of Pay It Forward, a well-intentioned but heavy-handed failure to capture philanthropy in its purest form: that which comes from a child who wants to change the world.
Millions, an exquisite work of youthful generosity, similarly taps into a child’s unblemished desire to impact society through giving and goodness but does so without pandering to the cinema’s most saccharin instincts. Rather, thanks to the best performances by children since Sarah and Emma Bolger in In America, director Danny Boyle’s first kid-friendly film takes on a magical sense of uncomplicated wonderment.
In fact, Alex Etel is so magnificent as Damian, a young British boy who is literally hit with a bag of money after it’s tossed from a train, that he single-handedly provides Millions’ tone of uncompromised kindness and trust. In his debut role, Etel is nothing short of captivating, as Damian seeks to share his newfound wealth with those in need. The recent death of his mother has turned the boy onto the subject of saints as an explanation for her death, a fixation that his brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon, also appearing in his first film) says won’t make him any friends at their new school.
Thankfully, the movie is smart enough not to use their mother’s death as an emotional crutch-in several scenes of perfectly-orchestrated, cathartic humor, the boys receive free food and special treatment when they pout and tell strangers their mom died. Instead, it’s a story about the way that a young child can see the world in a totally pure way and that all of us can forget how, at an early age, we were once concerned with the plight of everyone across the globe. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, it’s not exactly about the way that a child copes with the death of a parent but the manner in which he shares his mother’s spirit with the world.
This is all set against the backdrop of the UK’s transition from the pound to the euro, and the film serves as an exploration of the things that stay with us even after they are supposed to be gone. It subtly and gracefully tackles the idea of something that has always meant so much suddenly losing its presence and value and the question of what happens to it afterwards. Without succumbing to morbidity or sappiness, Millions traces life’s little miracles and maps the path of mourning to recovery to beneficence.
Unfortunately, the film also strays off course when it deals with a bank robber (Christopher Fulford) trying to recover the money from Damian, and it doesn’t quite settle into a subplot in which a charity worker (Daisy Donovan) begins a relationship with the boys’ father (James Nesbitt).
Yet there’s a tenderness here that belongs to Etel and McGibbon, two fine young actors who not only embody their own parts but play off one another so well that they work marvelously as brothers. The movie is undeniably theirs, two performers whose total age is under 20 but possess an innate honesty beyond their years. In a movie concentrating on what to do with money that you haven’t earned, these boys show that the greatest riches they have are each other.