A young man in his 20s is kicking ass as a contestant on a locally-produced version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." In between tapings, he's interrogated by the police over suspicions that he's cheating because he's from a poor neighborhood and thus they don't believe he can possibly have the education to know the answers he knows. He's not cheating, of course - it's actually all some kind of amazing divine luck: ALL of the seemingly-difficult answers are burned into his memory thanks to popping up in the major events of his colorfully hardscrabble Dickensian life - what other kind do poor Movie Kids have, after all. Isn't that something else? His account of these events to the authorities forms the narrative structure of the film, a tale of too-clever-by-half kids making do with what they can, amazing encounters, narrow escapes and, of course, The Girl.
This should REALLY suck, right?
Re-read the above description, keep in mind that this film has been released NOW as opposed to forty years ago as a Tommy Kirk vehicle, and tell me you're not inclined to expect complete and utter pablum likely starring some Disney Channel teen idol looking for a film career. BUT... and it's a big but... the film in question takes place amid the slums of modern India. See? Now you're suddenly more interested. What a difference a gloss of exoticism makes on these tired Western eyes, no?
It also helps, of course, to have Danny Boyle directing.
The story is, no joke, exactly as I laid it out above - but the location makes all the difference. The sheer SCALE of the centuries-established poverty of the Bombay (soon to be Mumbai) slums is unlike anything most people have ever seen... a "poor neighborhood" the size of a "poor continent." Scenes of the poor and/or orphaned children clambering across massive industrial pipes the size and length of the Great Wall, or picking through a dump so vast they can/have-to literally camp out while crossing it are the stuff you'd see in a surreal dream-sequence - except it's real. This is "showy" filmmaking that goes back to the days when we were still figuring out what filmmaking WAS: Want them to snap to attention during a story they've heard a billion times before? Shoot it somewhere REALLY interesting.
It's almost something like a family film... but, though it's not especially graphic things get REALLY intense a lot of the time. The requisite child-exploiting bad guys of the first act are a really sick pack of scoundrels that would likely cause Oliver Twist and David Copperfield to mess their knickers rather than crack wise; and like most life-stories about poverty-stricken youth it morphs into a gritty gangster saga in it's second half. It's also pretty unsparing in it's depiction of Indian Police "interrogation" techniques - if this is how they handle suspected TV Game Show cheats, I don't think anyone has to worry about the Mumbai terrorists "getting off easy."
But, it finally manages the trick of being uplifting and even joyous despite the occasional spurts of darkness WITHOUT becoming cheesy or treacly. I'm gonna call it "reccomended" (not that you'll need my encouragement when the innevitable Awards showers begin.)