Two weeks ago, I reviewed the Cinderella story of the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, an independent production called "Girlfight", in which a teenage girl proves her naysayers wrong by stepping into the boxing ring. This week, interestingly enough, I had a chance to catch a screening of one of the highlights of the Toronto International Film Festival, an ugly duckling story called "Billy Elliot". Similar in many respects to "Girlfight", though arguably lighter in tone, "Billy Elliot" is about a teenage boy proves his naysayers wrong by stepping out of the boxing ring and into the world of ballet. Though certainly not as polished as "Girlfight", "Billy Elliot" manages to be a good balance of gritty drama, light humor, and sympathetic characters that is sure to elicit thunderous applause from any audience.
The year is 1984, and events in the British coal-mining town in which 11-year old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) resides are representative of the social turmoil besieging Margaret Thatcher's iron-fisted administration. The town's coal miners are on strike, including Billy's father (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven), and daily confrontations against legions of riot police have become commonplace. To add further misery to the Elliot household, Billy's mother is recently deceased, while his grandmother (Jean Heywood) is going senile and is prone to wandering off.
To escape the drudgery of his working-class childhood, Billy taps into his passion for music and dance, often with the help of his brother's LPs. Unfortunately, it seems that Billy's world has little room for dancers-an attempt to use fleet-footed moves in his after-school boxing lessons ends in disaster. However, his passion for dance is ignited when a ballet class taught by the austere Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) catches his eye.
Despite the fact that all of Mrs. Wilkinson's students are girls in white tutus, and all the homosexual connotations that go with male participation in the art form, Billy jumps right in and finds himself feeling right at home. In fact, Billy takes to ballet so naturally that Mrs. Wilkinson urges her newest protégé to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. Unfortunately, when dear old dad catches wind of his son's unconventional after-school activities, he predictably forbids Billy from doing 'friggin ballet'...
No doubt you've come across a film like this before, where the heroes pursue their passion against all odds, and eventually win everyone over with their sheer determination and talent. "The Full Monty", "October Sky", "Shall We Dance?", and even the hokey "Coyote Ugly" have used this tried-and-true formula. Lee Hall's script for "Billy Elliot" doesn't break new ground with respect to this genre, but it certainly does craft characters worth caring about, even when the story stretches the limits of plausibility and the dance numbers aren't as graceful as one would hope.
As the titular character, Jaime Bell brings a combination of innocence and enthusiasm to the role, which perfectly match young Billy, who is bewildered by a world that seems determined to maintain the status quo. As Billy's father, Gary Lewis brings the complexities of his character alive as a father who means well, but is demonized by his own ignorance and pride. Finally, Julie Walters is well suited as Billy's chain-smoking mentor, whose belief in her newest student's abilities reawakens her own passion for ballet.
Director Stephen Daldry takes these characters (not to mention terrific performances), and spins a fairy tale of contrasts, which is aided by some slick editing. Unlike Billy, everyone in his hometown pretty well has become used to the way things are, which is humorously emphasized when Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter (Nicola Blackwell) is completely oblivious to the presence of police in full riot gear, or when she nonchalantly shares her family's darkest secrets with Billy. In addition, Billy's sexual orientation is also at issue, as his family reacts to his passion for ballet with homophobia, which is further exacerbated by a kid next-door with a penchant for cross-dressing (Stuart Wells).
Fortunately, instead of sugarcoating the issues at work in "Billy Elliot", Daldry balances the Hollywood musical trappings of the story some harsh doses of reality, adding an unexpected amount of pathos to the proceedings. The clashes between police and striking coal miners, the harsh disciplinary methods of Billy's father, and the economic realities facing the Elliot family hang like a dark cloud over Billy's dream to dance the ballet, which gives the story's closing moments that much more emotional resonance.
As a musical, the dance numbers themselves are hardly polished, though they are true to the story. After all, Billy possesses raw talent that has yet been shaped by professional training, so it would be implausible for him to move like an accomplished dancer. However, fans of musicals will still find much to like, as Daldry still infuses the film with some light-hearted musical montages, which are aided by a catchy soundtrack that uses a number of period Britpop tunes, such as "London Calling" and "We Like to Boogie".
Mind you, "Billy Elliot" is not completely perfect. The film's second-half could have used some tightening up, as it needlessly draws out the resolution to Billy's desire to enter the Royal Ballet School. As well, Daldry throws in an extended dance sequence (à la "Tap Dogs") that seems completely out of place next to the rather serious-minded drama that immediately precedes it. However, these are minor quibbles when "Billy Elliot" is viewed as a whole.
If you are a fan of British imports such as "East is East" or "Waking Ned Devine", you certainly won't be disappointed by what "Billy Elliot" has to offer. Taking riffs of musical fantasy and grounding them in the context of the hard reality of Thatcher's Britain, "Billy Elliot" is a rousing feel-good coming-of-age tale aided by some sharp writing, engaging characters, and some incredible performances.