Those wondering how to direct child actors would do well to look to a handful of fine recent releases from overseas: "Dear Frankie,"...

Share story

Those wondering how to direct child actors would do well to look to a handful of fine recent releases from overseas: “Dear Frankie,” “Nobody Knows” and now Danny Boyle’s “Millions,” which features at its center an angel-faced young actor named Alex Etel. As Damian, a motherless 7-year-old obsessed with saints and miracles, he’s never cute, never forced, and always enchanting — a balance American kid stars rarely find.

Damian and his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon, also splendid) live in northern England with their well-meaning but ineffectual father (James Nesbitt). Their mother has recently died, and they’ve moved to a spanking-new suburban development to start again. One day, as Damian is walking through the fields by the railroad tracks, a suitcase full of money falls from the sky. It’s from God, he reasons — who else would have that much money? With the help of his more pragmatic brother, they drag the bag home, vowing to tell no one. But money, they learn, has a way of “making it harder to see what’s what.”

Movie review 3.5 stars

“Millions,” with James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan, Alex Etel, Lewis McGibbon, Christopher Fulford. Directed by Danny Boyle,
from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce. 97 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, language, some peril and mild sensuality. Egyptian.

In the hands of a less brisk director, “Millions” might have turned saccharine. But Boyle, who’s better known for more gritty fare (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later”), turns Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay into something magical — a gentle illustration of that particular moment in childhood when the world begins to make its mark. Etel, as Damian, has an almost painful earnestness to him; you sense, watching him, that life will hurt this child and shape him into something tougher. Anthony, at 9, is already there; he’s businesslike about the money, thinking about investing in property, while Damian’s idea of a good purchase is buying birds at the pet store, so as to set them free.

The story is given urgency by a nifty plot creation: This Britain is about to adopt the euro, so that suitcase full of pounds will shortly become worthless. Plus, this treasure is more elusive than most. As the father gets drawn into the story, along with a charity worker (Daisy Donovan) who effortlessly joins the family, things get darker, and very young viewers may be frightened by scenes in which a criminal imperils the boys in trying to regain the money. (Damian is crushed to learn that the money is stolen; Anthony remains level-headed. “It’s not the money’s fault it got stolen,” he says.)

Ultimately, though, “Millions” is a sweet story of faith (Damian’s love for the saints — shown with appealingly askew halos — is unquestioning), hope and charity. The adults, and even Anthony, remain peripheral: This is Damian’s story, and he seizes it.

“That’s how Anthony would want this story to end,” he says in voice-over over a final, sun-drenched scene. “But it’s mine. This is where I want it to end.” And so do we.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725