Alex Etel as Damian
Lewis McGibbon as Anthony
James Nesbitt as Ronnie
Daisy Donovan as Dorothy
Christopher Fulford as The Man

With a surprising change of gears from his previous work, Danny Boyle has created a quirky, heartwarming film with a terrific young star-to-be in Alex Etel. Wonderful!

After moving to a new community following the death of their mother, two brothers’ lives are changed when the younger boy Damian (Alex Etel) finds a bag full of money. With the British pound being replaced by the Euro in a few days, they have to do something with the currency quickly before it becomes obsolete. While Damian wants to give the money away to the poor, his older brother Anthony has less charitable ideas. Little do they know that the criminal who originally stole the money will do anything to get his loot back.

At first, Millions may seem like a departure for British filmmaker Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), because it’s the first time he has used children as his central characters. In actuality, it is the most logical progression for a director who has never spent much time dwelling in any single particular genre, and the two unknowns he has cast in the roles, Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon, help make this film such a special and uplifting experience.

At the center of the story is the young and impressionable 8-year-old Damian, who is having difficulty dealing with the loss of his mother to the point of losing touch on reality. Believing his mother to be in heaven, he becomes obsessed with memorizing the names and stories of famous saints, who appear before him and offer advice when he needs guidance. This strange behavior gets a few sideways glances from his older brother Anthony, the more practical of the two, who uses their mother’s death as a way to get sympathy and free things. Feeling very alone, Damian builds a clubhouse out of discarded boxes by the side of the railroad tracks, where he can talk to his saints in peace. When a bag filled with comes crashing through the roof, he thinks it’s from God himself.

Based on a terrific script by Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People), Millions is a very different film, not only from Boyle’s previous work, but also from any other film in recent memory. It’s a rich and stylish film that harks back to classic boys’ adventures like Huckleberry or Tom Sawyer, while perfectly capturing the innocence of youth and how it can be corrupted. The true wonder of the film comes from the way that Boyle enhances Damian’s imagination with the clever use of CGI and visual effects, bringing a bit of magic and fantasy into his reality. A particularly impressive sequence involves the boys exploring the foundations of their new home, as it builds itself up from scratch all around them.

The viewer never completely loses touch with reality because the story also includes a darker crime element that has been more pervasive in Boyle’s previous work, even offering an homage to Boyle’s first film Shallow Grave, which also dealt with the greed that affects people when they suddenly come into money. What makes this “found money” premise so uniquely different is how the impending conversion to the Euro is used as a plot device, and the way the two young boys react to the money is the main reason why Millions is so different. Rarely does one see someone like Damian who has such a great desire to give and share, while Anthony would rather use the money to increase his status at their new school, while trying to keep the money a secret, especially from the new woman in his father’s life, who he doesn’t trust at all. Their desire to keep the money a secret leads to a fast-paced third act where the boys, their father and his new girlfriend try to find ways to spend or exchange the currency before it’s worthless. At the same time, the film gets a bit darker as the burglar who originally stole the money plans on taking the money back once it’s exchanged.

The humor is a lot less mean-spirited and cynical than some of Boyle’s past work, and a lot of that comes down to the delivery of lines by the young Alex Etel as Damian, who has such a wondrous charm and naivety that you can’t help but love him. In Etal, Boyle has once again found some amazing untapped talent like he did with Ewan McGregor, Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, as Etel gives the most impressive performance by a young actor since Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland. By contrast, Lewis McGibbons brings the tougher and more cynical world view of a burgeoning teen that you might expect, and the way these two young actors play off each other throughout the film is part of what makes the movie so special.

Working again with most of his 28 Days Later crew, Boyle has made another visual treat by using distinctive camera shots and angles, along with the unique effects. He also continues the tradition for finding the perfect music to accompany those visuals, as Millions‘ soundtrack includes everything from a poppy Clash ditty to Vangelis, all of which helps to keep the film’s pace and light-hearted mood.

This rich and eclectic story may be too much for some to absorb, particularly the youngsters that should be able to enjoy parts of it. More pragmatic viewers may be unable to put aside their cynicism to enjoy the heart-warming ending, but Boyle’s wondrous mix of fantasy and reality should be able to leave a warm feeling inside even the most jaded cynic.

Millions opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday with an expansion throughout March and April.