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Billy Elliot
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenplay: Lee Hall
Stars: Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Julie Walters (Mrs. Wilkinson), Jamie Draven (Tony), Gary Lewis (Dad), Jean Heywood (Grandma), Stuart Wells (Michael), Mike Elliott (George Watson), Janine Birkett (Billy's Mum), Nicola Blackwell (Debbie)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: UK

Much like the art of ballet itself, BillyElliot, the story of an 11-year-old boy from working-class northern England, maintains an impressively delicate balancing act throughout its duration between the whimsically comical tale of the boy's desire to be a ballet dancer and the backdrop of hard-edged, violent realism against which it is set. The film's tone shifts constantly, keeping the audience always on edge, yet it feels almost effortless at times.

Billy Eliot, the titular character, is played by newcomer Jamie Bell with a mixture of wide-eyed innocence, reluctant skepticism, and fiery intensity. Billy is an interesting and sympathetic character throughout, yet at the end of the film he has been transformed into a symbol of escape: Unlike everyone else from his neighborhood, Billy escapes the constraints of his place on the social spectrum. The film, written by Lee Hall, does not pretend that this is somehow universal, but rather uses it to show that it is possible, and often by means that one would not immediately consider. Hence, ballet.

The story takes place in 1984 Thatcherite England. Billy's father (Gary Lewis), a recent widower, is a tough, no-nonsense man who earns a living, like so many others from their small town, as a coal miner. Billy's older brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), is following in his father's footsteps as a miner. When the film opens, both of them are out of work because their union is in the midst of a long, bitter strike that brings hoards of police in riot gear to the small town everyday. The police, with their large plastic shields, helmets, and billy clubs, are an imposing presence throughout the story.

Billy's father wants him to become a boxer, but early scenes at boxing practice show that the thin, wiry Billy is no boxer. Instead, he gravitates toward an all-girls ballet class at the other end of the gymnasium. Director Stephen Daldry has fun in these early portions by visually juxtaposing Billy, dressed in baggy shorts, a tank-top tee-shirt, and lace-up boxing shoes, with all the girls in the class, each of whom is dressed in a pink tutu. Billy stands out like a sore thumb, but the ballet instructor, a tough-talking, chain-smoking woman named Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), sees that Billy has potential. He looks clumsy and out-of-step with the more practiced girls, but she recognizes that he has natural talent, and it isn't long before she is recommending that he audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.

The Royal Ballet School becomes the means of escape for Billy, but escape is not so easy. There are monetary concerns: The school costs money, and Billy's father is barely scraping by because of his involvement in the strike. And, of course, there are social concerns: Both Billy's father and his brother are humiliated and incensed that Billy would want to take part in ballet. "Lads plays football ... or boxing ... or wrestling," his father implores. "Not ballet."

But, because Billy Elliot is ultimately a feel-good film about reconciliation and escape, it's not much of a stretch to see where the story is going or where it will end. The film makes a strong statement about the need for families to pull together in the hard times, and it makes us understand the different characters' various points of view. The opposition of Billy's father to his pursuing ballet forces Billy to train with Mrs. Wilkinson (who begins to serve as a surrogate mother to replaced Billy's recently deceased Mum) on the sly. Yet, Billy's father is never made into a one-dimensional authority figure. Yes, he's narrow-minded at first, but it is obvious that it is because he is a product of his environment, and the fact that he eventually comes around and realizes the opportunity ballet offers Billy for a better life than he had is ultimately more telling about who he is as a man and a father.

Although it has a brief running time of just over an hour and a half, Billy Elliot touches on a number of pressing social and emotional issues, including the sexual confusion of Billy's best friend (Stuart Wells) and the middle-class family problems that plague Mrs. Wilkinson who, like Billy, uses dance as a means of escape. Billy Elliot is enjoyably lighthearted, but never simplistic about its story. The sudden moments of violence that infuse the film are constant reminders that, even though Billy may escape to a better life, all is not well for everyone (there is a particularly poignant moment at the end showing Billy's father and brother descending back into the coal mines). Yet, the characters push on, and the film's final moments ensure us that, as much as can be, everything is right with the world.

Overall Rating: (3)

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