Before its final third, Billy Elliot is a beautifully filmed, beautifully acted movie that avoids cheap sentiment and doesnt make overly obvious attempts to tug at the heartstrings. Unfortunately, all unblinking objectivity is tossed aside and Billy Elliot becomes a little too precious and aggressively heartwarming.
Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is an eleven-year-old kid from a small-town, working-class English family whose mother died when he was very young. Billys dad (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) are striking mine workers who dont have a lot of time or patience for much beyond their own issues. Billy halfheartedly takes boxing lessons and all seems purposeless until the young boxers are forced to share space with a ballet class. The all girl herd of tutus is led by the tough, cigarette smoking Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Billy is intrigued, sort of accidentally does a pas de deux or two, and is hooked.
At first he hides his new hobby, but is of course found out. His dad and brother find out and forbid Billy from dancing, as it somehow reflects poorly on all mens sexuality. Billy continues to sneak into his toe shoes, at the encouragement of Mrs. Wilkinson, and is soon flying across the cobblestone roads like a mini West Side Story dancing gang member.
Jamie Bells performance is pretty remarkable. His struggle between desire and expectation is plain, and his fear of exposure being replaced by acceptance of his talent is affecting. Julie Walters is great as the cranky mentor to Billy. Gary Lewis turns in a strong performance as the overprotective head of household, trying to provide for his family and maintain a sense of dignity. There is a scene with the father and oldest son at the mine that is heartbreaking and it underscores what is good about this movie.
But the last act of the film devolves into cheap sentimentality. Billys dances of frustration made me immediately think of Kevin Bacon in Footloose, which is not an image one wants to have flashing back unexpectedly. The familiar plot of an underclass hero making good is just too easy for a movie this promising to fall back on. What starts out as a funny, simple, touching movie about daily struggles turns into a manipulative tearjerker. I admit that I sniffled along with everyone else in the theater, but I almost felt obligated since the movie tried so damn hard. Still, Billy Elliot is an affecting movie, and its a hell of a lot better than most of what has been inflicted upon us this year.
+ David Kern