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The story of an English boy who discovers he prefers ballet shoes to boxing gloves, Billy Elliot is a unique variation on the familiar story of the kid who rejects the repressive standards set by his society in order to pursue a hidden, taboo talent. Elliot first distinguishes itself from these other films through its setting in tumultuous Northern England during a 1984 miner's strike. This context makes the tension between Billy's desire to dance and his society's expectations more complex, taking the forms of objection beyond the typically gender-oriented ones usually encountered by male dancers. Moreover, the film is particularly noteworthy for its vivid and unique means of portraying emotion; through editing, music, careful direction and choreography, the director shows not just Billy's passion, but that of the other characters as well. This meditation on emotion, I would argue, is what makes the movie truly remarkable, and distinct from similar movies which confine their scope to the story of the individual's journey.
Billy (Jamie Bell) first discovers his love of dance while attending his weekly boxing lesson, which shares gym space with a ballet class. Frustrated one day after a bad lesson, he walks through the divider that separates the two classes and joins the dancers. He decides that he likes this side of the gym better, and henceforth spends his boxing-lesson money on this newfound activity. Once Billy's father, Jackie (Gary Lewis) becomes wise to Billy's deceit, he revokes the boxing allowance. However, Billy's teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), sees so much potential in Billy that she agrees to continue their sessions for free and, moreover, offers to train him for an audition with the Royal American Ballet. Of course, things do not go as planned. On the day of Billy's audition, his brother Tony (Jamie Draven) must appear in court and, thus, the family's presence is required. His teacher, pissed off when Billy does not materialize at the appointed time, goes to his house to inquire as to his whereabouts. A showdown follows between Wilkinson and Billy's father and brother, the latter two already frustrated from the earlier day's events. The result of the conflict is Billy's withdrawal from classes and from the Royal Academy auditions, thus jeopardizing his future as a dancer.
The remainder of the movie chronicles Billy's struggle to follow his dream in the face of this adversity. Yet, Billy Elliot does not merely focus on this journey, but uses it as a starting point from which the audience may explore the characters' emotions. When Billy first starts dance lessons he is forced to practice in secret, in his room with headphones or in the bathroom. Different montages show us Billy's progress, cutting between the boy's practices and the activities of his family members and thereby associating the scenes. Although we expect only Billy's moves to correspond to the music we hear in the background, we see that the father's actions also take on the beat at times. Thus, it as almost as though the "electricity" that Billy feels while dancing, as described later in the film, courses through the entire household. Music is used throughout the film to imply this presence of passion in the characters. When Tony races through his neighborhood in a frantic effort to avoid the cops, when Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) almost kiss during a pillow fight, and when Billy tap dances through his neighborhood after having been forbidden to continue lessons, the distinctive soundtrack seems to represent the strong, often irrepressible emotions which motivate these people. Thus, the audience comes to understand not just Billy's feelings but those of the people around him, and specifically those of his family members. Although Jackie and Tony are often harsh to each other and to Billy, sequences of this type are used to remind the audience that the men, like Billy, have strong spirits which drive them, both in daily activities and in facing their particular struggle, namely the mining strike.
Aside from one sequence, which I won't explain for fear of ruining the movie, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. The person I saw the movie with suggested that it was a less successful variation of an older film called The Corn is Green (which I haven't seen). Indeed, Elliot does follow a long tradition of this kind of inspirational, "getting-out" film (most recently, October Sky - which is also set in a coal mining town). Yet, one cannot reduce the film to a reformulated version of the same tale. Through its superb editing, use of music, and performances, Elliot almost jumps off of the screen at several points, attempting to infect the audience with its so-called "electricity." In my case, it was successful.