[Screen It]

(2000) (Jamie Bell, Julie Walters) (R)

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Drama: Despite facing various levels of conflict as well as sexual stereotyping, an 11-year-old British boy follows his dream of becoming a ballet dancer in mid-1980s England.
Billy Elliot (JAMIE BELL) is an 11-year-old boy growing up in the coal-mining town of Durham, England in 1984. With his mother dead for less than a year and his father, Jackie (GARY LEWIS) and older brother, Tony (JAMIE DRAVEN), on strike against the local coal company, Billy spends his time caring for his grandmother (JEAN HEYWOOD) or in the boxing gym with coach George Watson (MIKE ELLIOT).

It's there one day that he spots Mrs. Wilkinson (JULIE WALTERS) and her ballet class. Immediately drawn to the dance form, Billy eventually joins Mrs. Wilkinson's young daughter, Debbie (NICOLA BLACKWELL), in the class, but doesn't tell anyone in his family. Despite not being very good, Billy perseveres, with his instructor sensing an innate talent buried somewhere within him.

At home, things aren't going as well. The tension among the family members is ripe and that explodes when Jackie learns of Billy's recent activities and even goes so far as to question his son's sexuality, a point that would have added weight if he knew that his son's platonic friend, Michael (STUART WELLS), was an apparently gay transvestite.

As the coal miners' strike continues and various "scabs" cross the picket line, Billy continues with his training, hoping to gain an audition one day with the Royal Ballet School, all while confronting various levels of internal and external obstacles that stand in his way.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Although there are all types of movie protagonists in all types of movies, when it boils down to it, two main archetypes are present in most films. Those, of course, are the hero and the underdog, and both types of characters use varying means to elicit reactions from audiences. In the end, however, we inherently know that the portrayal of either is successful if we root for their efforts and then cheer their success.

The heroes - when male -- are the ones that women swoon over and boys and men want to emulate. Usually rugged, handsome or debonair, they often exude self-confidence, bravura and charisma, and have no problem confronting or overcoming obstacles, saving the day and/or defeating the villain.

Underdogs, on the other hand, are usually the complete opposite of the hero, at least in the eyes and viewpoint of the audience. Such characters are occasionally small or slight in stature, not always particularly good looking, and they often doubt their abilities - to some degree or another -- when confronting the various obstacles that stand in their way of whatever it is they plan to do or achieve.

Billy Elliot is one of those underdogs. A gangly 11-year-old growing up in a gritty, northeastern English mining town, Billy's family life has come undone. His mother died within the past year and since both his father and older brother are on strike, the family's running out of money. Yet, Billy has a dream and that's to become - in of all places and situations - a ballet dancer.

At his age, Billy doesn't have the looks or physical abilities of a Mikhail Baryshnikov, the grace of a Gene Kelly, or the family wealth or support that's often present in middle to upper crust society where kids, albeit usually female, routinely take ballet lessons. Yet, despite a host of obstacles that would otherwise thwart the efforts of all but the most determined underdogs, Billy perseveres and that's the underlying story that drives the appropriately titled "Billy Elliot" and makes it a rather enjoyable and entertaining experience.

Somewhat reminiscent of 1999's "October Sky" in both theme (your dreams can be your ticket out) and certain plot elements (an unsupportive father in a coal mining town), the film has an infectious feel right from the start (due to a fun opening credit sequence) that only grows on you as the story progresses through a familiar but effective plot arc.

The film also bears a resemblance to "Girlfight," the recently released and also thematically similar film where the protagonist bucks the usual sexual stereotypes (in that case, a young woman takes up boxing) and continues with her goal despite such notions and grows as a person because of that (the fighter becomes more feminine the tougher and more proficient she becomes).

Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall (both making their feature film debuts) don't seem to be going for the same magical gender transformation - Billy doesn't become more masculine by exploring what many would consider to be his feminine side. Instead, they're seemingly more interested in telling an often funny and occasionally touching, "pursue your dreams and overcome the obstacles" type of story.

What makes the film work so well, quite simply, is the performance from Jamie Bell (making his feature film debut) as the title character. In yet another bit of art coincidentally imitating life, Bell, who's been dancing since he was six, reportedly went through the same sort of sexual typing and harassment/conflict as the character he plays. Perhaps it's that level of authenticity that the young actor brings to the screen in the role, but the characterization is dead-on and Bell creates an instantly credible and sympathetic protagonist.

As in most types of underdog stories, there's a coach present who brings out the best in the protagonist while challenging him to overcome whatever obstacles he may be facing, and in this case, that character is perfectly played by Julie Walters ("Educating Rita," "Titanic Town"). Thankfully avoiding the stereotypical characterizations of such coach or mentor characters, Walters and the filmmakers have fashioned a believable and somewhat unpredictable character that nicely adds to the overall mix.

Gary Lewis ("Gregory's Two Girls," "Orphans"), who was so good in "My Name is Joe," is quite good as Billy's working class father (despite some 3rd act motivational problems I'll discuss in a moment) and Jamie Draven ("Everybody Loves Sunshine") is similarly credible as Billy's older and moody brother.

The oddest character - as far as the overall story is concerned - is played by Stuart Wells (who makes his debut). He portrays a young transvestite in a subplot that seems a bit contrived and doesn't really add anything to the proceedings unless his sexuality is supposed to mirror or contrast everyone's assumptions of Billy's.

Beyond that, the film's biggest problem (which certainly isn't tremendously overwhelming) lies with its heartwarming and not altogether unexpected "feel good" turn of events. Without giving too much away, certain characters' sudden attitudinal changes and related behavior also seem a bit too contrived, manipulative and obviously designed to give the film a crowd-pleasing, uplifting ending.

While I'll almost always take a happy ending over one that's not, filmmakers need to be careful how they structure such a turn of events, lest they distract the viewer by calling undue attention to such contrivances. While some or perhaps many viewers might not have a problem with how things occur here, such changes in certain characters' beliefs and motivation don't seem to have enough of a sustained, credible or strong enough catalyst to make such a transformation as smooth and seamless as possible.

Of course, none of that's meant to suggest that the film is a downer up to that point. Its often buoyant and infectious feel certainly covers most of its problems and ultimately should sweep away all but the most jaded cynic. Although it took a while for the film to hook me on an emotional level, once it did it didn't let go.

With a fun and bouncy period soundtrack, a few decent dance numbers (although probably not as numerous or extravagant as some might expect despite a fun symbolic number with Billy trying to dance his way out of being trapped in his life in his town) and a great performance by Bell, there's little doubt why this underdog story is gaining momentum as this year's, feel good crowd pleaser. Although not perfect and certainly not as brilliant as some are touting, the heartfelt "Billy Elliot" is nevertheless a charming, entertaining and enjoyable little film. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 23, 2000 / Posted October 20, 2000

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