Movies We Like
In the States, after the critical and financial success of English movie imports like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty, there was a tidal wave of working class Brits vying for their would-be places in the American cultural zeitgeist unfelt since The Beatles and The Stones landed on our shores. (The Snapper, Walking Ned, Still Crazy, Bend It Like Beckham, Shirley Valentine, anyone?) It helped us re-appreciate the old days of Bob Hoskins, when working class Brits were gangsters in films like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa during that great British wave of the '80s. So you can understand why I felt so cynical back in 2000 when I heard that the latest British darling, Billy Elliot, earned a couple Oscar nominations (for its script, director and supporting actress Julie Walters)--and even worse, it was about some kid who was alienated from his working class family because he wants to be a dancer. Egads, that sounded like a load of goop to me. And like my own personal feel-good-story, eventually I caught up with the movie and was pleasantly surprised. As a matter of fact, I was shocked; I too was a sucker for the flick and on rewatching it some decade-and-a-half later, I again fell for its charms.
A permanent gloom has settled over the Elliot family in Northern England. Eleven year old Billy (Jamie Bell) has been lost since his mother died. Her mother, his Nan (Jean Heywood) is suffering from some sort of dementia. Billy’s stoic Dad (Gary Lewis) and bully big brother (Jamie Draven) are coal miners and the UK miners' strike has just begun, bringing more desperation and intensity into the home. His only friend, Michael, is dealing with his obvious homosexuality. Dad was once a boxer and though money is tight, still sends Billy to boxing class where he is a dud. But next door the girls have ballet class, which appeals to Billy. The chain-smoking ballet teacher, Sandra Wilkinson (Julie Walters of Educating Rita) takes a shine to Billy, encouraging him to dance. Billy finds a way of self expression through dance. He is able to use all that pent-up adolescent rage and the pain of a tough home life and turn it into some kind of hybrid of Riverdance, Stomp and Flashdance-ing, with his ballet training at the root. (With what seems to be just a couple classes, he seems ready for Broadway). Even after his Dad and brother find out he has been secretly going to ballet instead of boxing (in their macho culture thats a no-no), Billy manages to still sneak in a few classes, prompting Sandra to get Billy an audition for the Royal Ballet School in London (another world away from their small town). As the local strike gets deeper and clashes with cops and scabs intensify, the family gets behind Billy’s dance ambitions, knowing it’s his only way out of the shit life they have all been stuck with. It becomes the family's and much of the community's goal to raise the money so Billy can travel to London. And as the family bonds and grows to respect Billy’s choice, get out the Kleenex because your face is going to get a trail of tears on it.
This was London stage hotshot Stephen Daldry’s feature film directing debut, so in some circles it came with some fanfare. (He would go on to some more success with more dour fare like The Hours and The Reader). With a script from another English theater guy, Lee Hall, the film is obviously manipulative, hitting all the heart-tugging notes just right, but the simple style really is perfectly executed, the mid-eighties period detail is sharp, the use of the rotting industrial landscapes is captivating and the score with music from the '70s glam band T. Rex is fantastic. (It also uses some songs from The Clash, The Jam and The Style Council - how can you go wrong?) But the main reason the film is more then just an adorable heartbreaker is the lead performance from the adolescent kid Jamie Bell as the title character. Bell, in his first film, was fourteen when it was released. Apparently he came from a family of dancers, but he’s no Mickey Mouse Club showbiz kid, or at least he doesn’t come off that way. Like a little Jack Wild, he seems completely authentic, and although teeny in size, there is a rambunctious masculinity about him mixed with the vulnerability --and hot damn the kid can dance. He probably ranks right behind Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun and the kid from The Sixth Sense for the best child performances in the last thirty years; it’s an astonishing piece of work, fully captivating and realized. And he alone take the film to a much higher level (than perhaps it deserves).
Like Billy Elliot, showing strength in his conviction to dance in a culture that looks down on it, I too have to put up with the jeers from my peers for my admiration for this flick. And I was once like them;, it looked trite and I judged it without even seeing it. But I challenge any of my hipster film snob compatriots to watch this movie and not be moved. Maybe you won’t be able to show the courage I show, with my dancing around yelling out my love for it, but deep down you will know, that yes, indeed this simple little movie can make you feel big things.