Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor, from

Dir. Danny Boyle
(R) ★ ★ ★

Slumdog Millionaire is rated R, but it’s not an R movie. To my eyes, it’s clearly a PG-13. The language is tame. The sexuality is virtually non-existent. The themes are mature, but the treatment is not exploitive. There is violence, but none of it is graphic. Part of the film takes place in an Indian call center; perhaps during this economic crisis the MPAA is now taking a hard line against depictions of outsourcing.

Playing like City of God with a dash of Quiz Show, Slumdog Millionaire follows Jamal (played as an adult by Dev Patel), a young man on the verge of winning an unprecedented fortune on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? How has he done so well? He is penniless, uneducated, from the slums. He must be cheating, right? He is arrested and interrogated in ways that would have seemed shocking before the Bush administration. His interrogator is a police inspector played by character actor Irfan Khan, who had a breakthrough year in 2007, pulling off a hat trick of noteworthy supporting roles, in A Mighty Heart, The Darjeeling Limited, and, most impressively, The Namesake. If you don’t know his name yet, you will.

How Jamal has accumulated the knowledge to succeed on the show provides the framework for the story. The answers came from a life hard lived; he has been forced to grow up fast. Is it a tad convenient that the trivia questions are so perfectly aligned with his life experiences? Yes. Contrived? That too. I suppose we must look at this as a fairy tale of sorts, and the game show as figurative; the show itself is beside the point — what matters is that Jamal’s experiences have given him the wisdom to deliver himself into a better life.

Question by question, Jamal tells the story of his upbringing: He was born into poverty, lost his mother during a raid on his village, and with his brother Salim was exploited by a man who used children to panhandle on the streets. Through his life has been one constant: Latika, a girl he befriended, and whom he tries to rescue from further exploitation from childhood into young adulthood.

Latika is the kind of love interest who seems to exist mostly in the mind of the hero. Jamal idealizes their love, and since they spend so much of the film apart there’s little for him to do but idealize her. His devotion to her is believable, and they have touching scenes together, but we never really get to know her, and we wonder if Jamal knows her well enough to so declare her the love of his life. She never fully comes alive as a character, so their relationship works more as an idea than as a romance we can truly root for.

More effective is the relationship between Jamal and his brother Salim. As in City of God, the film it most closely resembles, Slumdog shows us how the common upbringing of two young men in the slums produced divergent lives. Salim is the older and stronger of the two brothers, but also a dark figure. He tormented Jamal as a child, but when it counted he was ruthlessly protective. He made hard decisions, some of which Jamal cannot forgive him for, but he sacrificed his innocence to save his brother’s, and that makes the trajectory of both characters especially moving.

Slumdog is written by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, and directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later). Boyle films with a frenetic style that is reminiscent of City of God, but he lacks Fernando Meirelles’s elegance of camera and narrative. At times, we wish he’d stay still and conjure more of the gentle warmth he brought to his other fable of young boys, 2004’s Millions. Perhaps that explains the MPAA rating: They were expecting a zombie movie.