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A Boy and His Cash

"Millions" looks for purchase between the worldly and the spiritual.


The setting is wholly un-Boylesque. Gone are the grungy byways and dilapidated council housing of "Trainspotting," replaced by spruce little enclaves patrolled by genial bicycling bobbies. Preteens chat knowledgeably about returns on real estate investments, and even allegedly otherworldly Mormons revel in their new dishwashers and digital televisions.

But with this affluence comes a certain disorientation, and no one feels it more than Damian (Alex Etel), a sensitive little boy with a cardboard hermitage by the railroad tracks, whose solitary reveries are interrupted when a gym bag bursting with bank notes is hurled from a passing train. It's loot from a robbery, but he assumes it's a gift from God — compensation, perhaps, for the recent death of his mum. After he reveals the stash to his slightly older, and much worldlier, brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), the pair become uneasy guardians of a secret fortune. Inevitably, the thug who stole it gets on their trail, but not before Damian has tried to dispense as much as he can to the impoverished. It's not easy; they're in short supply in his shiny, new suburban community. On the prowl for fit objects of his philanthropic zeal, he hopefully asks any stranger who happens by, "Are you poor?"

Throughout "Millions," director Boyle and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce skillfully tread the line between unbridled sentiment and hectoring denunciation of the modern world and all its questionable goodies. That's no mean feat, because Damian, who is in almost every scene, possesses a child's burning faith in God's paternal watchfulness. He's a familiar of saints, who regularly show up in his bedroom and other hideaways to offer counsel and encouragement. He greets them with friendly nonchalance, as he would the milkman. He's also an aficionado of their torments, and at the drop of the hat, he'll detail their gruesome ends with the painstakingness other children might lavish on a description of a freeway pileup.

In contrast to Damian and his longings, England in the film is just days away from taking quite a different leap of faith by ditching the pound and switching to the euro. Damian's saintly encounters are thus seamlessly interwoven with repeated public-service announcements in which a lecherous old gent cuddles with a buxom blonde while extolling the virtues of the European Monetary Union. Boyce moves with magical ease between moments of perfect faith and tawdry images of a land from which God has unaccountably withdrawn. The result is an almost entirely winning and compelling account of a boy's attempt to preserve the purity of his aspirations in a world of mortgage payments, alluring gadgets and conflicting desires — in short, his attempt to grow up.

In its later stages, "Millions" gets a bit bogged down in the business of the crook's threatening encroachment, and a few of the more extravagant narrative touches toward the end are willfully, thumpingly surreal. But the film is so fortunate in its cast that these elements never overwhelm. As the older, more sensible brother, McGibbon does a fine job of portraying a boy whose veneer of toughness never quite conceals vulnerability and sorrow. James Nesbitt, playing the boys' father, brings a gruff tenderness to his role as a widower just coming out of mourning. He has started to notice attractive women who cross his path and warily begins a relationship with one of them (Daisy Donovan). Above all, the film is carried by the impressively modulated performance of young Alex Etel, whose big eyes and moonlike forehead give him the air of a superior being stranded among mostly well-meaning blunderers who can't quite fathom what he's about. This, "Millions" hints, may be just what children are. (PG)**** S

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