Damien (Alex Etel), 7 years old and impossibly adorable, and his cunning amateur economist brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), 9 going on 19, and much less so, are moving with their recently widowed father, Ronnie (James Nesbitt), to a new gingerbread housing estate in the suburbs of Manchester, to make a fresh start after their mother’s death.
Like most boys his age, young Damien is less interested in the new hi-fi and appliances that come with the move than the boxes in which they were delivered, and he uses them to build a cardboard fort at the waste ground where their housing estate meets the railway line. There he copes with his grief by praying to God to look out for his mum, and, being an imaginative lad with an in-depth knowledge of the lives of the saints, he starts to have visions of minor bearded and haloed luminaries of the Christian calendar. His desire to do good in the world is suddenly facilitated by the arrival of a big bag of cash that comes crashing through the roof of his makeshift hideout.
Being of a religious bent, Damian believes the money came from heaven and should be used to help the poor, but his older brother has more selfish plans in mind for it. While Damian brings shabby street vendors to Pizza Hut for dinner, Anthony equips himself with shades and minders and becomes a man of influence among the other 9-year-olds at their school. Echoes of Boyle’s first feature, “Shallow Grave?” resonate in “Millions” when a Baddie (Christopher Fulford) shows up at the school Nativity play, anxious to retrieve his loot, by violent means if necessary, a week before the deadline for Euro-conversion of all of Britain’s sterling cash.
Boyle, the son of Galway parents and grandparents on both sides, and devout enough himself in his youth to be a contender for the seminary, balances with consummate skill the conflicts of religious fantasy and street pragmatism that drive the two brothers on their spending spree.
Shot in the bright colors of childhood and rooted in a world where adults make little sense to a 7-year-old beyond providing nourishment and shelter, “Millions” charms, thrills and chills for most its running time, dispensing smart lessons about greed, materialism and honesty before finally crossing the line from happy to sappy at the end.
County Antrim native Nesbitt is compelling as the children’s bereaved father, consolidating a big-screen reputation upgraded from TV-sitcom level three years ago by “Bloody Sunday?” and more than holds his own against Boyle’s real finds, the child actors Etel and McGibbon. Shot on digital video and refracted through the magic-realist lens of a bright child’s imagination, Northern England never looked so glamorous.
“Millions” premieres at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which deemed it suitable for audiences 8 to adult, and opens on a limited run in New York theaters on March 11.)