A young boy overcomes the cynicism and macho character of his working-class surroundings to become a great ballet dancer. [Dir: Stephen Daldry/ Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Julie Walters/ 110min/ Musical-Dance, Drama/ Britain/ Individualism & Independence]
There is something so universally appealing in the story of a talented dreamer overcoming the odds, that even if badly told it will almost always satisfy. And when well told, it does altogether much more. It reaches into the heart, past layers of protective indifference, and touches the gathered force of our own best hopes to remind us of the incredible potential for greatness we each possess. This film accomplishes just that.
Enter the world of Billy Elliot. He’s an eleven-year-old boy living in a small coal-mining town in depressed northeast England. Most of the people in this town, including his father and brother, have been on strike for years. As is explained in the film, they’re on strike because (then-Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher is shutting down mines that are uneconomic—that is, mines that cost more to operate than the coal they bear is worth. Rather than accepting financial reality, the people of this town are resisting necessary change and are paying a heavy price for it. Obstinacy is part of their macho culture, as is violence and drinking to excess. As apparent preparation for Billy Elliot’s own entry into this milieu, his father signs him up for boxing lessons at the nearby recreation hall.
Instead, Billy decides to take of all things—ballet! It’s a fateful decision and one that he must keep entirely secret. Aided by his dedicated ballet instructor, the boy quietly nurtures his growing talent, against the gray backdrop of perpetual poverty and strike-related violence. When Billy’s father finally discovers the deception, Billy dances defiant in answer to his father’s outrage, and the father realizes he must choose between his son and his own failed culture.
The overall message here—to follow your dreams instead of the herd, to take the path less traveled by—is intensely individualistic. This message is not only implied in the actions of the characters, it’s mentioned in remembered words from Billy’s now-dead mother, and it comes up in the songs that make up the background music to events. In another plus from a libertarian perspective, the film also has a minor social tolerance subplot. All this is told in a tremendously touching way, with humor and a positive sense of human spirit, in which good people reach for their best and flawed people ultimately redeem themselves through good actions.
This film has been compared to Flashdance, The Full Monty, and other films, but in my opinion there is no comparison. This is a true gem and one of the best British films in years. By the way, in yet another bizarre decision by the Motion Picture Association of America, this film was rated R. Yes, it does have a little foul language, but it’s entirely free of sex and is even light in its depiction of violence. By all means, thumb your nose at the powers-that-be and show your teen kids this film. Billy Elliot swept the British Independent Film Awards, winning “Best Film,” “Best Screenplay,” “Best Director,” and “Best Newcomer” (the latter for its 14-year-old star Jamie Bell).
External Reviews of Billy Elliot
“You are heartless if you don’t love every minute of this…the best British movie for years.”
“Billy Elliot has a freshness that makes it a pleasure to watch; it’s a very emphatic success.”