If you’re in the mood for a “Rocky” remake channeled through the body of an 11-year old British boy-ballerina, Billy Elliot is the movie for you. It’s the heartwarming, heartstrings-plucking tale of a lil’ chap from Northern England who trades in his boxing gloves for a tutu. It’s a triumph of the human spirit in its never ending quest to be an original no matter what the establishment says. If you’re looking for an arty think-fest flick, best look elsewhere than at Billy Elliot.
Billy, played spunkily enough by newcomer Jamie Bell, lives in a small rural town divided in an on-going strike by the local coal-miner men. It’s an ugly world that scrawny Billy lives in–his downtrodden neighborhood is cramped and ugly, his own dear mother is deadly departed, his on-strike Dad (Gary Lewis) and brother Tony (Jamie Draven) are as at war with each other as the world. Boo-hoo for Billy, is clearly the movie’s opening message. One day, though, after his boxing class, Billy stumbles upon the beauty of a ballet class and allows himself to be sucked in by the art and its hard-driving teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters).
Billy is a bit of a self-raised klutz so when ballet doesn’t come too easy, it’s up to him to drive himself to excel. Almost everyone around Billy is unsupportive of his tutu-esque aspirations–he is first deemed a “right wanker,” then a “right twat.” Nevertheless, the fact that ballet clearly endows Billy with the ability to transcend the emotional and material poverty of his life instills in him a happiness he refuses to surrender. Ballet becomes for Billy order in the midst of the strikers’ chaos, a way for him to shift from boyhood dependence to the autonomy of manhood, and still remain an individual even in opposition to tradition. Or maybe Billy just likes to dance.
In any case, when caught doing one too many fancy leaps by Dad and getting busted for using the 50p intended for boxing instead for ballet, Billy gets told he’s gotta stop all this pointy-footing around. Mrs. Wilkinson’s got other plans, though, and after a smidge of a hold-up works on getting Billy that audition at the big-fancy Royal Ballet School in London that all the cool boys who are ballerinas get to go to. “Always be yourself!” someone shouts. And how! Anyone who doesn’t get the point by the end needs to ease up on the lithium. The thing that makes it all somewhat tolerable is that Billy Elliot maintains a sense of grittiness throughout, a bit shockingly so in the end, throwing in enough expletives and acts of violence to make the leaping about in toe-shoes bearable. Personally, I like Billy’s dance number on a toilet best, but perhaps that’s just me.
Certainly, the best thing about Billy Elliot is Billy Elliot himself as given to us by 13-year old Bell, plucked out of some 2,000 boys who auditioned for the part. He’s at his best when he’s playing a rough-and-tumble boy in pursuit of his somewhat odd dreams; dancing-wise he’s at his best when he busts out tap-dancing something like a honkey Savion Glover. Walters too does a fine job of keeping her balls about her, furthering along the fight against Billy Elliot becoming too much of a sob-fest. Debut direction by Stephen Daldry and writing by Lee Hall are both decently capable.
God knows, Billy Elliot’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not for anyone who has the slightest trouble understanding one of the more extreme examples of a Brit-accent in American cinemas this year (think of it as practice for Guy Richie’s forthcoming Snatch’d). It’s mostly the type of movie to see when visiting one’s grandmother back East over the upcoming holidays. “Just because I like ballet,” explains Billy, “doesn’t mean I’m a puff.” Just because audience members like Billy Elliot doesn’t mean they’re puffs either, or thought it might mean they like it puffy.