Not to be confused with “Billy Budd,” “Billy Bathgate,” “Billy Madison,” or “Malcolm X”. “Billy Elliot” is actually the debut release of Universal’s new art-house label (why bother selling off October Films?) Universal Focus. It would seem to be an obvious pick. It’s a coming-of-age period piece. It’s got dancing and British accents. It has a touch of social relevance and class-struggle, but it’s not threatening to America’s “limousine liberals”. It definitely ain’t the mind-f**k of a “Requiem for a Dream” or a “Love is the Devil”.
Still, it’s pretty good. 11-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) lives in a Northern England mining town with his widowed father (Gary Lewis) and older brother (Jamie Draven), both of whom are miners involved in a prolonged strike. Despite this, Dad still finds the money for Billy’s weekly boxing lessons. As the boy has no talent for it whatsoever, his attention drifts to the ballet class for girls taught on the other side of a divider in the same gym by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). When the ballet teacher’s daughter Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) sucks Billy into a lesson, he finally finds the one thing he’s actually good at. Once his father finds out where the money for the boxing lessons has been diverted, he’s none too happy. Mrs. Wilkinson, having long recognized the boy’s talent, agrees to teach her sole male student in secret to prepare him for an audition for the Royal Academy of Ballet. Will he make it? Will his family find out? What will happen when they do? Oh, and what’s up with Billy’s best friend Michæl (Stuart Wells)?
Yeah, it’s easy to make fun of the folks at Universal Focus for starting their new art-house label with a movie of broad, family appeal. But hey, it’s a good film, so somebody had to release it. It all comes down to Jamie Bell as the title character, and his acting and dancing chops are more than up to the task. Aside from almost wall-to-wall T-Rex on the soundtrack for a film set around 1985, the whole package feels fairly genuine. Occasionally director Stephen Daldry may try too hard, but it is his first feature. Maybe now that the distributor has released a movie I could take my parents to, they’ll find something a little more challenging to piss them off again.