Rated R, 110 min. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Jean Heywood, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Stuart Wells, Mike Elliot.
Set against the gray, doomed miner's strikes in Durham County, England nearly two decades ago, the titular Billy Elliot is a young working class kid who -- dammit! -- just wants to dance, dance, dance. When the tow-headed moppet asks his mate, “Who do you think is better, Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers?” you know you're in for a sticky-sweet ride aboard the treacle train, and that's exactly what you get. Jockeying for the position of this year's Full Monty, the filmmakers have masterfully crafted a film that's almost guaranteed to melt all but the hardest hearts, while making those of us with more sensitively calibrated bullshit detectors feel like heels for whinnying about how slyly manipulative the whole gooey mess is. In an effort to deflect perhaps a few of the bricks about to be lobbed in my direction by the shiny, happy contingent, let me point out that there are a couple of decent touches here, most of all Gary Lewis' sullen performance as Billy's dad -- a gruff, manly miner who views his son's sudden love of ballet as proof positive the lad's a poofter. There's a scene toward the end of the film with the Elliot brood gathered around a makeshift Christmas tree in their cold-water flat. So crippled are they by the strike that Da Elliot has taken a sledgehammer to his wife's beloved piano in order to create some insta-kindling for the grate, and Billy, his potty grandma (Heywood), and brother Tony (Draven) can only sit around mumbling “Merry Christmas” as Elliot senior weeps in his Guinness. It's a powerfully acted scene, and even at that it seems a clearly scripted contrivance. When Billy's on-the-sly dance instructor (Walters, of Educating Rita) announces her belief that the kid has a shot at the prestigious Royal Academy of Ballet and therefore a way out of the hellish northern England black-lung 'n' fistfights daily grind, it's up to his father to come 'round and see the light of day. At this point, you can almost hear Bill Murray's Caddyshack groundskeeper Carl muttering, “It's a Cinderella story, here's the kid, coming from behind …” Good grief. Much is made of the fact that Billy's mum is dead, but in stories of this type the mother is always dead, or gone, or inside a liquor bottle somewhere, and so that's hardly a revelation. For all its well-intentioned “heart” (there's so much of it you could chop up the film, stick it in a sheep's stomach, and sell it as Haggis down at the pub), Billy Elliot is first and foremost a tear-jerking, feel-good, hanky wanker. Bell's performance as Billy is fine and clear, but his antic, rage-fueled dancing seems more in tune with the mad puppetry of Being John Malkovich than anything the real Royal Academy might like to get their mitts on. A strange subplot involving Billy's gay friend Stuart (Wells) seems incorporated to somehow prove to us that, no, despite Billy's love of ballet, he's not gay because he doesn't cross-dress when given the opportunity. In a film rife with pirouettes and pliés, this is indeed the oddest dance of all. I'll give Billy Elliot points for at least capturing the horrific day-to-day intensity of being crushed beneath Margaret Thatcher's miner-baiting boot heel, but that's about as far as reality dares trod in Daldry's film. The rest of it is so much sticky-sweet confectioner's paste, bad for your teeth and liable to give you a tummy ache two hours later.
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