|Jamie Bell as Billy Elliot
At last, a film about boxing, little boys and ballet! Huh? Despite its potential appeal to fetishists, Billy Elliot (Universal Pictures) is also a fierce and funny British import about a ballet protégé trying to overcome his family's ignorance and poverty while preparing for an audition with the Royal Ballet School. Bring It On this film ain't and anyone looking for a cheesy "cheerocracy" comedy should stay home and watch Clueless again.
As told with humor and honesty by writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot's theme to "always be yourself" is one that anyone who has ever felt chronically misunderstood can appreciate. In the movie, the phrase comes from a treasured letter Billy's late mother wrote to him, which he memorized. But as anyone who's mamboed to a different conga knows, staying true to oneself is not easy when the world demands conflicting loyalties. The idea that everyone deserves a chance is the film's secondary message and one that can be as hard to realize as the first. This second difficulty is illustrated after Billy (Jamie Bell) finally convinces his working-class Dad (Gary Lewis) and brute of a brother (Jamie Draven) that he's not a "poof" (English slang for gay) and just may be a dancing genius for all they know. Though he's won their emotional support, it's still an almost impossible struggle for them to raise the money for him to follow his dream.
Times get so hard, due to an interminable strike at the town's coal mine, AKA the pit, that at Christmas Billy's Dad smashes the family piano to make kindling for the fireplace. In two last acts of sacrifice and desperation, Dad pawns Billy's mom's jewelry and tries to cross the mine's picket line to get "scab" work, the most unpardonable of all sins for a union man. But, such is the caliber of bullet bitten to get Billy on the bus to London and as far as possible from a pit-filled future as black as the family's lungs.
Luckily for Billy, his road becomes somewhat paved when he is encouraged and tutored by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), Billy's maritally unfulfilled, chain-smoking ballet teacher. "Miss," as she's called, recognized Billy's talent the first time he stepped up to the ballet bar after having his little block knocked off in boxing class. Walters, an Oscar nominee for 1983's Educating Rita, plays Miss like a tough-talking Tracey Ullman with a genuine concern for Billy's plight, but at the same time, not about to put up with any "shite" (English slang for poo).
Adding a touch of tragic comic relief is Billy's daft grandmother (Jean Heywood) who "could have been a professional dancer" or so she says when not getting lost in her own backyard or mourning at the wrong tombstone when she and Billy go to visit his mother's grave. Heywood's performance, like most of Billy Elliot, is both heartbreaking and humorous. Although it's a grim fairy tale, as long as the family and friends stick together, it's never without a shaft of hope.
So, thanks to the electrifying joy of dancing and the super-glue of family support, the ghastly realities of the Grapes of Wrath mix with the reckless release of Footloose and the preteen Balanchine is eventually welcomed to his new calling. The film ends with a weepy final scene set twenty-five years later. Billy's father (still amazed by escalators and in-door plumbing) and brother attend a London performance of Swan Lake with Billy as head swan. Guts are wrenched so thoroughly that ladies in the audience are advised to bring a large box of Kleenex, while their gentlemen will be better armed with a full flask of gin to wash down all the schmaltz that clogs up the film's final frames.
All in all, Billy Elliot is a worthwhile night at the movies. It's too bad, however, that the film received an R rating, presumably for rough language and the brutality of the clashes between the striking miners and riot police. The rating restriction is bound to keep many youngsters, who've heard tougher talk on their favorite rap CDs and seen more graphic violence in a Wrestlemania special, away from a film whose message of perseverance and belief in oneself is valid from schoolyard to graveyard and every pit stop in-between.
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