The Scoop: 2004 PG, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Alex Etel, Lewis Owen McGibbon, and James Nesbitt
Tagline: Can anyone be truly good?
Summary Capsule: Two boys discover a mysterious bag of mucho money, and enter into an exploration of spending, faith and runaway donkeys.
Justin’s Rating: Cardboard forts are da bomb, yo
Justin’s Review: I think I just figured it out, the big chasm that separates most film critics and art house movie buffs from the rest of us schlobs: we’re just not afraid to admit we like happy, uplifting tales. Think about it. The bulk of Oscar nominations every year, the Top 10 lists of most serious “harrumphing” critics, the $10 word reviews in Vanity and the Weekly World News all seem to absolutely adore depressing movies. Give us a film where someone dies, they cry! Or where someone is mentally retarded, or physically challenged, or where there’s child abuse and poverty and drugs and racism and despair, that’s what wins the prestige! And yet a lot of normal people shy away from these types, not because they lack the intellect to understand them, but because they have little desire to be drained by a film. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be filled up by one.
I’m carefully mincing toward the start of this next paragraph here, in which I’ll be saying something important that I hope you don’t blow off or take out of proportion. Bear with me. Review under construction.
I simply, whole-heartedly, truly fell in love with Millions. I felt filled up the first time I saw it, and two days later when I brought it to youth group to share with my teens, I loved it even more. It’s a tremendous story that is nothing less than a sheer delight wrapped around a thoughtful, spiritual center, and I can’t believe it came from the directorial talents of a guy who’s previous efforts featured heroin and zombies. Not that it’s a bad thing, just unexpected.
What first grabbed me about Millions is its child-like lens through which it views everything. Millions is not concerned with serious, adult film making techniques, but instead does its best to recall what the world looked and felt like when we ourselves were tykes. Our star is Damien, a young British kid who recently lost his mother and is moving to a new house with his harried father and slightly older brother Anthony. In his world, colors pop out as if painted in a lush storybook, we move between scenes in creative ways, and houses magically construct themselves if you simply lay down and imagine them doing so.
Damien’s a boy with a child-like faith in God, a clear-cut view of right and wrong, and is enraptured with stories of the saints (whose biographies he seems to have memorized like trading cards). These saints drift in and out of his life, unseen except by him, to offer him advice or an interesting perspective on things. During one of these saintly visits (by a smoking nun, no less), a huge bag of cash falls out of the sky and crushes his cardboard fort. He thinks it’s from God, and shares his big secret with his brother, who sees less of the “God” angle, and more of the “spending spree” side of things.
Although his brother isn’t that bad, Anthony is much more of a realist and a materialist than his little bro, and this begins to drive a wedge between them. Damien wants to use these funds to help the poor – although, as he finds out, this is a really hard thing to do right. Anthony wants to keep it a secret and use his money to gain him popularity and goodies. It gets even more complicated as Damien’s spending draws unwanted attention to them, a shifty man shows up from the railroad tracks, and their father gets involved with a new woman.
“The love of money is the root of all evil,” Jesus said, and this is a hard lesson for Damien to learn at such an early age. This bag of cash is a gift, yes, but also a heavy burden and a destructive force. For Damien, it throws him into a harsher, more adult world where his faith is not very well respected, and where there’s far less “good” and “bad” as there is “murky middle gray area”. I love how the ethical dilemmas start out small (Anthony shows Damien that if they simply tell people their mom died, people tend to give them stuff… but is that a right thing to do, even if it’s the truth?), and then grow and grow. I also love to see how Damien, a small and almost insignificant force in this world of older brothers and grown-ups, holds his ground and refuses to be sucked into compromising his beliefs. “We got to look out for ourselves” his dad says. Damien wants to look out for the poor instead. Who’s right and who’s understandable and who should we be?
It’s not as completely serious as I am probably making it out to be. Millions has a massive heart for humor and character beats, and its number one mission is to simply make you smile. The boys having a far-too-serious discussion about nipples, for instance, or Damien’s impassioned explanation about why Joseph the carpenter would’ve been well-rested and not tired at all when going to Bethlehem are just a couple moments out of dozens that had me laughing hard.
Millions is also endearing for remembering how awesome it is to be a child. We as older people can watch it and identify just fine with the adult perspective and side of things, but I think we also would just rather cheer Damien on and jump headfirst back into our youth, if only for the brief time this film presents. What’s more fun, thinking about taxes and currency exchange rates, or building a spaceship out of cardboard boxes and blasting off? So how come we don’t spend more of our time doing (or at least thinking about) the latter?
There’s also a small moment that got me, almost at the end of the film, which I wanted to mention
but it’s a bit of a spoiler:
It’s right after Damien hugs his dead mother and we discover that Anthony’s seen her too. Right after Damien says a couple words to his brother, he walks off, and Anthony turns around and gives a small, almost inaudible gasp or choke. It’s this noise that had me tear up, because in it we discover that Anthony’s not entirely lost his faith or his way, and that he’s in awe of his younger brother for remembering it. When this happened, I just stood up and declared this the best film of the year.
I don’t care if you can find faults with it or think it’s too childish; it’s a marvel that something like this could be made and then given to me to enjoy as many times as I like. I just hope you do the same.
- The book that Damien reads and references throughout the film is called “Six O’Clock Saints”. Popular in the UK in the 1950s, it is surprising that any parent would give a copy to their child, as the director points out, since it contains all the gruesome stories that Damien tells in class, plus many more.
- According to the director, some of the actors who play the martyrs of Uganda were descendants of the real martyrs of Uganda of 1881.
- Many of the cutting and shot compositions in the train robbery sequence are intentionally referential to moments in Night Mail and The Great Train Robbery
- That’s the coolest cardboard rocket ship ever!
Damian: God doesn’t rob banks, all right? God does not rob banks.
Anthony: What did you bring a thousand pounds to school for? Can’t you see that’s suspicious?
Damian: It’s not suspicious, it’s unusual.
Constable: Statistically, with it being Christmas and all, one of you is going to get burgled. Probably next week… maybe the next.
Anthony: Tell them you’re mom is dead and they give you stuff.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Shallow Grave
- A Christmas Story