Ever since Danny Boyle burst onto the big scene with his raucous, disgustingly grubby tale of Edinburgh street life, the world has been waiting for a truly worthy follow up. His work since then has been mostly solid, but while he has done some amazingly fresh work in genres thought to be played out (28 Days Later, Sunshine), he has never really delivered on that initial promise of vibrant, visceral, dirty, sweaty filmmaking until now.

Based on Indian author Vikas Swarup’s bestselling page turner about an orphan boy from the streets of Mumbai who wins big on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and then is accused of cheating, there is something positively Dickensian about this tale of a spirited guttersnipe under the boot of the class system. And Boyle does indeed love his urchins, from Mark Renton to The Beach dweller Richard, Boyle has a fascination with societal disconnect and the freewheeling spirits and the stories that can be found on the other side of the crack they’ve slipped through.

Shot for what by Hollywood standards is peanuts, Boyle gets great value for money by utilizing the city and the surrounding slum as a character in its own right. Tracking a bunch of infants in mid-hustle dodging police, he switches from aerial footage to hand-held on the ground. Boyle gives us a whirlwind tour of this sprawling metropolis as a living, breathing organism pumping its inhabitants through a twisting, turning network of streets and cobbled together shack like a heart pumps blood.

From this shantytown we learn about Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young call-center “chiawala” (tea boy) with nothing to recommend him save himself, who the previous night hit it big on Millionaire and is now strung up in a cell with a car battery clipped to his toes as the police have a quiet word. Accused primarily with cheating and more indirectly of not knowing his place, Jamal recounts his colorful life story to a more than curious Police Inspector (a quietly dependable Irrfan Kahn).

Much of the film is comprised of flashback following Jamal, his big brother Salim, and Jamal’s true love Latika from hustling toddlers to hustling adolescents with key elements in his life illustrating how he really did come to know the answers. Much like the classics of literature from which it draws its many themes, these young whippersnappers get by on their wits and their strong bond to one another, a bond that Salim feels Latika threatens and he sees to it that she is cut loose. It’s an act for which Jamal never truly forgives him. Surviving another day with food in your belly can at any given time mean a good-natured hustle posing as a tour guide at a temple to steal shoes, or running for your life from a Fagan-esque character looking to deliberately blind children to raise their value as beggars.

How much you enjoy this frenetic, life-affirming, sporadically violent slice of street life directly depends on how much stock you’re prepared to put in the concepts of fate and destiny. Jamal we learn is not on the show to make a fortune, he is there because he is still searching for Latika, whom he is sure will be watching.

With each question on the television show the trigger for another chapter of Jamal’s story, scripter Simon Beaufoy (who’s resume suggests he knows a thing or two about wish fulfillment) employs the concepts as a patch for what might otherwise be some pretty ropey storytelling. Given how much time they are shown moving from place to place in a country with over 1 billion people living in it, Jamal and Salim sure do run into the same people often enough. Having grown up on brief encounters and crash courses in a handful of subjects the questions on the show are conveniently specific.

These are minor gripes when you consider Boyle’s visceral flair and the innocent and endearing performances he drags out of these kids who play our heroes at various stages of their lives. Toss in the odd veteran Bollywood thespian like Anil Kapoor as the villainous moustache twirling Millionaire host happily prepared to crush a dream or two underfoot if he can remain the star and you have the kind of exotically offbeat, yet socially conscious story that will capture audience hearts, critical acclaim and awards by the bucketful.

Starring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Irrfan Khan

Director: Danny Boyle

Runtime: 120 Minutes

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Rating: R