You’d be excused for thinking that the storyline of Millions, while appealing, is not all that exceptional. A pair of brothers have recently lost their mom, and moved with their dad to a home in a brand-new development. The younger boy, Damian (Alexander Etel), a charmer with a freckled, open face, is playing in a grassy field near his home when a gym bag thrown from a passing train crashes through his cardboard fort. The bag contains a lot of lot of cash.
Damian shows it to his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), who’s a shrewd kid. Anthony knows that if they turn it in, the government will take 40 percent in taxes. “Do you know how much that is?” he says to his brother. “Almost all of it.” Anthony favors hiding the money and spending it on themselves, perhaps investing in real estate. There’s one hitch (well, in addition to the fact that realtors are hesitant to sell expensive condos to 12-year-olds): The cash is in British pound notes, and the nation will be switching over to the Euro in a couple of weeks. The cash was part of a trainload on its way to the incinerator and, after Christmas Day, all this grand old paper money will be worthless.
A pretty good story so far, and as you can imagine, there’s also a threatening bad guy who comes looking for his misplaced loot, a budding love interest for the widowered dad, and plenty of countdown suspense as the date the cash’s value will evaporate draws near. You can picture Spielberg making this movie, and if he had, you would have taken the kids and had a good time, enjoying both the teary-eyed and the edge-of-your-seat moments, and walked out feeling satisfied. So what if your sentiments had been manipulated? It would be a good movie.
But two things make Millions different from what you expect–make it a better movie, but at the same time, complicate its ability to succeed in its goal. The first is the intriguing addition of an unusually strong religious theme. The young boy, Damian, is a child who loves the saints, and talks about them enthusiastically, annoying his older brother, and confusing his teacher and schoolmates. But Damian also sees the saints. They’re apt to appear suddenly and casually, and begin chatting with him as if resuming a conversation. Damian is sitting in his fort in the field when suddenly a woman in a nun’s habit, with a lined face and a down-to-earth manner, appears next to him. He recognizes her immediately: “Clare of Assisi, 1193-1253!” Clare talks with him in a friendly way, puffing on a cigarette and sending up smoke rings. These aren’t woo-woo apparitions; the saints aren’t gauzy and incandescent. Their modest halos hover like springy berets.
Little Damian is something of a saint trainee himself, and unlike his venal brother, he wants to give the money to the poor. He doesn’t know how to do this; he doesn’t know how to locate any poor people, but does his best. A Latin-speaking St. Nicholas helps him stuffs bills into the mail bin of a household of excessively Aryan Mormon missionaries down the street. As he sits in his room filling envelopes for various charities, St. Peter appears and cautions him not to check the little box that asks permission to pass his name on to other charities, because he’ll be swamped.
These saints aren’t add-ons to the plot, or figments of Damian’s imagination; they’re actual characters who affect the course of the story. When Damian must abandon his role as St. Joseph in the school Nativity play in order to flee the bad guy, the real St. Joseph takes his place, pulling his cloak well around his face and trying to speak in the high voice of a little boy. (A little earlier we had seen Damian at rehearsal disagree with the teacher about how Joseph would deliver a line. The teacher says he would have been tired; Damian argues that he would have been excited; the teacher suggests a compromise of “nervous.” As Damian steps backstage we see St. Joseph was listening in. “I wouldn’t have said ‘nervous,’” he says. “I would have said… ‘focused.’”)
In an entertainment culture that generally mocks religion and ridicules the supernatural, this kind of warm, positive presentation of what Christians call “the communion of the saints” is a delight. And that’s why the second unusual thing about this film is a complication. Danny Boyle is a gifted director, but not the kind that lets a simple story tell itself. He’s an artsy, tricksy guy who enjoys showing us clever visual effects–for example, when the brothers lie on the plot of earth marked out for their new home, and the house builds itself around them in rapid motion, right down to the roof tiles clicking into place.
Sequences like that are a lot of fun to watch, but the whole point is that they’re fantastic; it’s the kind of thing you can’t see in real life, but which the magic of cinema can provide. And yet, for the movie to work, we need to forget that we’re watching a magic trick. The film’s surprising charm depends on our buying the proposition that Damian’s saints are real. That’s already a stretch. While it’s a kick to watch the flighty, exuberant style, it also reminds us continually that we’re watching a movie, and that keeps undermining our simple trust in the story. I think it’s due to this uncertainty about what to trust as “real” in the film that viewers don’t know what conclusions to draw; some critics assume Damian is just doing some grief-work projection, some complain that the film is treacly, and one online critic says that the film has no message at all. A more subdued, less distracting style might have made it easier to follow what the film was trying to do. Talented people need to know when to stop.
That’s a small complaint, aimed at making a really good film one step closer to perfect. Personally, I was surprised, then delighted, then honestly moved by this film. I’m a Christian, and I believe the saints are present around us in a way very much like what Damian experiences (in my case, invisibly, natch), but I sure never thought I’d see someone make the case on a movie screen. I’m grateful. And, yes, I think the movie does have a message. It’s that we should give to the poor, and that our gifts do good, sometimes a great deal of good even with small amounts of money. It sounds sappy stated that way, but the film builds the case effectively, by storytelling rather than lecturing, and arrives at a climax that brought tears to my eyes. I walked out of the theater calculating ways to increase my charitable giving by 50 percent. If only a few people out of each audience do the same, it will make a big difference. Miracles do happen; people make them happen; Danny Boyle starts them happening by making a movie like Millions.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.