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A boy finds joy on the dance floor
'Billy Elliot' a leaping testimony to human spirit
(CNN) -- British directors crank out earthy, warm-hearted comedy-dramas much in the same way that their American counterparts focus on breasts and fireballs. It's worked before, so they keep at it.
Set in 1984, "Billy Elliot" is an unapologetically sweet little movie about an 11-year-old boy (Jamie Bell, as the titular Billy) who, after his beloved mother passes away, finds unexpected refuge in the world of ballet.
An American studio wouldn't shoot this movie even if Mel Gibson agreed to play Billy.
The story is set in a small, working-class town that's sinking in despair as it endures a lengthy coal miners' strike. Billy's bruising father (Gary Lewis) and older brother (Jamie Draven) are having a hard enough time riding out the work stoppage, so when they discover that Billy has secretly traded in his boxing gloves for a set of dancer's slippers, they're floored. Proud, macho types, they think that Billy's new passion is for "poofs."
But Billy, who definitely likes girls, doesn't care what they think. He's an awkward, skinny kid with a surplus of enthusiasm who finds much-needed release in his dancing. His many problems disappear when he throws himself into a song. Dancing, he says, makes him feel "like electricity."
With the help of Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), his sympathetic, chain-smoking teacher, Billy soon hopes to pursue his dream all the way to the Royal Academy of Dance in London.
Born to dance
Director Stephen Daldry's feather-light touch is somewhat reminiscent of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsythe's dry humanism (see "Gregory's Girl," 1981). Aside from Billy's secret lessons and dad's stress over the strike, there's nothing too earthshaking going on. You just experience a slice of life featuring a group of people whom you come to love, even with their various shortcomings.
There's a pleasant, relaxed pace to the events -- an approach that, again, is anathema to fire-breathing American cinema. Billy is introduced during the opening credits, as he joyously bounces on his bed to the strains of his brother's favorite T. Rex album. You can see from his leaping and posing that he already has a dancer's heart; he just doesn't know it yet.
He's introduced to ballet during a group boxing lesson at the local gym. A girls' dance class is taking place on the far side of the room, and Billy finds himself drawn to it.
Once the boys leave, he sneaks over to take a closer look. Mrs. Wilkinson -- who, in the beginning, is mostly after the money Billy will have to pay her if he participates in the class -- invites him to join in.
The film is superbly cast, from top to bottom. Walters displays an especially slovenly approach to dance instruction; there's usually a cigarette dangling from her lips when she offers the kids pointers. The little tutu-clad girls are also charming as they shoot half-amused, half-awed glances at Billy. After the initial embarrassment, he starts enjoying himself. He may be the only boy prancing around the gym, but it sure beats pounding on the heavy bag.
Dad, of course, forbids Billy to continue dancing when he stumbles upon him in action. But Billy keeps practicing in secret, and the final sequences involve Billy and his father growing closer despite their pivotal differences.
Pirouettes and stumbles
Yes, there's some sap involved, but it's a gentle kind of sap. You don't feel manipulated by Lee Hall's poignant script. He compels you to keep your cynicism in check, at least for the duration of the picture.
There are a couple of charming subplots among the children that add unexpected texture to the story. For instance, Billy shows up at his friend Michael's house, only to find that the boy (delicately played by Stuart Wells) is wearing a dress and applying makeup. When Billy asks him if he'll get into trouble if anyone sees him, Michael says he won't. After all, he knows that his dad does the same thing when he's alone.
Billy accepts his classmate's "idiosyncrasies" with an open heart. This display of tenderness leads Michael to eventually pine for him. Even though Billy can't reciprocate, he accepts that too. It's a lovely, nonjudgmental addition to a story that operates on forgiveness and tolerance.
The real draw, when all is said and done, is Bell's immensely entertaining performance as Billy. He throws himself into the dance sequences with blissful abandon. Billy slowly grows into a performer; he doesn't just fall into a state of grace. One sequence, in which he joyously leaps and twists his way down a deserted side street, is absolutely exhilarating. Bell alternates between precisely executed dance steps and outright stomping and stumbling. Like the movie itself, he proceeds on good will, but sometimes springs into awkward, touching pirouettes.
Bravo! to everyone involved.
There's a smattering of bad language in "Billy Elliot" and some scenes of strike-based violence. Especially uptight viewers may have trouble with the mild homosexual angle. Lighten up, folks. PG-13. 111 minutes.
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