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Billy Elliot is a familiar story about battling the odds to achieve a dream, and with some fine performances (and dancing) the movie stands on its own as a mostly satisfying experience. That success stems largely from the relationship of Billy, played by Jamie Bell (in his film debut) and Gary Lewis (in a terrific performance) as his father. As young Billy recognizes that he is not fit nor interested in the boxing classes he is enrolled in, but drawn more to the dance class that is temporarily using the gym as their hall is being used as a soup kitchen. The all-girls’ class welcomes him and he finds his step almost naturally, the instructor, played by Julie Walters, seeing some raw talent. Billy’s father and his older brother are less than thrilled upon learning that Billy is skipping the boxing classes in order to dance, worried that be might be seen as gay, a significant concern in this time and place. Of course, once they see how adept the boy is to the art, they have a dramatic shift in opinions and work to help Billy earn his way to a crucial audition that could change all their lives. There’s even an aged grandmother with Alzheimer’s who once dreamt of being a dancer.
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot is an uncommon common film, an inspirational movie that casts the usual parts in a story that is far from typical, and it works for it. Billy faces lots of obstacles of course, as expected, including getting funds to make the trip and pay for the pricey audition, something that soon the entire town gets behind, but there isn’t too much worry about whether he’ll make it or not. Additionally, Billy has a best friend who comes out, and Billy learns about an attraction to a girl he’s never seen ‘that way’ before as he develops his dancing skills. The film isn’t too complicated, and adheres to the formula pretty tightly, pushing all the right emotional buttons along the way, but that is to be expected. Sometimes that’s all a movie needs. The investment pays off in dividends as the proud father encourages and motivates while sacrificing much of his own to see Billy through. Sentimental, tender and sweet, Billy Elliot is a pure feel good film. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
The Royal Ballet School in London is a prestigious institution and Billy’s instructor believes he is capable of earning a coveted spot. A great effort and financial burden has brought Billy to face the judges and he does somewhat well if not inspired, though his nerves get the better of him. He ends up punching another candidate and is brought before the review board to discuss the audition and his actions. The panel is firm in their actions informing Billy and his father that they will be in touch with a decision, which feels like a rejection. As the two are about to leave, one member suddenly asks Billy to tell her what is feels like when he is dancing. Billy pauses and considers, searching for the words, the sensation nearly indescribable. He provides a few loose examples until he settles on ‘electricity’, a word that seems to hit the mark with the committee, understanding the comparison completely. Indeed, it seems a word all are familiar with.
So how does one tell another what is feels like to do something that defines who they are, how it feels, and what it means to be part of it? The passion that Billy has consumes him, and to this point we’ve seen the scrappy boy exhibit some talent, but more so, we’ve seen how powerfully affecting it is for him. The question is crucial because throughout the story that is what we have all been wondering in some respects. What makes this scrawny little boy so driven to be a dancer? For anyone who has found something that moves them in their life, a hobby or skill or talent, the discovery of it can be exhilarating and even addictive. Billy faced a lot of hurdles to get this chance, and seen a lot happen for that chance to happen, but he’s never really had to answer why. More importantly, to self-reflect and think about why he’s doing it himself. That is the judge’s intent. While his performance might not have been as technically proficient or refined as expected, the fire within him is obvious. This is what makes any passion a success. Watching Billy find that answer, to see how true that description is for him take hold, is a wonderful moment.
Daldry also photographs the scene well, with Billy’s father in soft focus behind him at an open door, creating a powerful image of support. We feel the disappointment in Billy’s apparent situation, but also see the spark that signals hope, and we realize that for Billy, it isn’t just his untapped skills, but the recognition of what those skills mean and how special it is to have them that will make him the better dancer. Without this one transition, the results that come later would have no weight. It’s a great moment.