Billy Elliot, a shy 11-year-old, is obedient to his widowed, long-suffering father, devoted to his absentminded grandmother and in awe of his employed older brother. But he's an utter failure when it comes to the art and science of boxing at the rundown neighborhood boys' club. "You're a disgrace to those gloves, your father and this hall, "the kid's coach declares.
Just next door, though, is an alternate universe, also located in northeast England, circa 1984: Billy stumbles onto a room full of little girls in tutus and an earnest, sharp-tongued teacher who can't help but notice the boy's agility and his ability to move with a surprising amount of grace. Soon enough, Billy is stealing ballet books from the library, studying Fred Astaire's moves during a TV broadcast of the 1935 musical "Top Hat" and spending his boxing money on dance classes. He rehearses in secret at home and hides his dance clothes and shoes under a mattress.
The sound-bite description of "Billy Elliot" -- boy switches from boxing to ballet, thereby defying his tough father, learning important life lessons and grabbing a rare chance to escape his grim environs -- may be enough to frighten away even those most receptive to British imports. Could this be some sort of sappy cross between "Fame" and "The Full Monty"? Is it just another installment of U.K. whimsy?
Not a chance. The accomplished debut feature from stage director Stephen Daldry (Via Dolorosa, An Inspector Calls) instead is short on sentimentality and imbued with an appealing grittiness, befitting its working-class milieu. Jamie Bell, a 14-year-old screen rookie, invests his performance as the title character with equal measures of high-spiritedness and emotional resonance. The story of Billy's rise from pretender to contender for a spot at the prestigious Royal Ballet School is augmented with a major subplot concerning the roles his father (Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie Draven) play in an extended, violence-marred miner's strike. Several of the inventive and invigorating dance sequences are intercut with shots of angry strikers demonstrating their displeasure with the scabs.
Rocks, bottles and epithets are hurled at a bus full of newly hired workers frightened by the animosity. That and other edgy episodes underscore the film's moodiness. A distinct sense of melancholy is created: Someone as talented as Billy indeed may find sweet release from this dingy, economically depressed town, but most of its residents will be forced to simply make the best of their circumstances. A Christmas celebration at the Elliots' home illustrates the desperate poverty, as family and friends gather around a fire made possible by the destruction of a beloved family heirloom.
Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall take time to explore the complicated relationship between Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), a woman with an alcoholic, boorish husband and a good-hearted passion to give her gifted student the tools with which to take advantage of his talents. "Miss, you don't fancy me, do you?" Billy asks his teacher, in one of several smartly placed bits of comic relief. Billy additionally navigates his way around the romantic attentions of a couple of schoolmates of both sexes.
The filmmakers examine the resentments, class consciousness and biases borne by Billy's father and the sheer joy the preteen discovers in the physicality and poetry of dance. "Billy Elliot" is a coming-of-age story that's nearly devoid of sap.