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Familiar but Tutu Touching

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000

   


    'Billy Elliot' Jamie Bell trades punches for pirouettes in "Billy Elliot." (Universal Studios)
I n 1999, Universal Pictures released "October Sky" to mildly popular if not widespread critical acclaim. Maybe you remember the heartwarming story about a coal miner's son who, against the resistance of an initially domineering father, dreams of escaping the confines of a small town to become a rocket scientist? That film was based on the memoirs of one Homer Hickam, who actually managed to get out of Appalachia and become a real-life rocket scientist. Little more than a year and a half later, the same studio has come out with another heartwarming story about a small-town coal miner's son who, against the resistance of an initially domineering father, dreams of escaping the confines of a small town to become a . . . ballet dancer.

Homer Hickam, meet "Billy Elliot."

While not based on literal fact, the U.K.-set "Billy Elliot" was purportedly inspired by screenwriter Lee Hall's experiences growing up in Newcastle during the 1984 British miners' strike, the backdrop against which "Billy" takes place. As Hall's press kit bio somewhat immodestly puts it, "His tale triumphantly exposes the strong bond formed within a community during a time of despair and the hope that is brought to them through an extremely talented young boy." (I know the "extremely talented" part probably refers to the writer's fictional alter ego, but still . . .)

Hey, if you even remotely liked "October Sky," you should love "Billy Elliot," which like its predecessor also features a very cute kid in the title role (freckle-faced newcomer Jamie Bell), in addition to yet another tragic muse (a chain-smoking Julie Walters as dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson, filling in for her "October Sky" counterpart Laura Dern).

Rounding out the cast is the stolid Scottish actor Gary Lewis as Billy's father (a.k.a "Dad"), a macho, filled-with-impotent-rage kind of guy who's been raising two headstrong sons single-handedly since his wife (Janine Birkett, seen only in hallucination) died. He, of course, thinks Billy's allowance money is going to pay for boxing lessons and when he finds out that his youngest has abandoned padded gloves for toeshoes, he hits the roof – at first. Turns out the old man might have a heart after all.

So, not only does this family have to deal with Dead Mum's Ghost, a Son Who's Gotta Dance and a protracted strike (which leads to friction between teenage son Tony and his father when Dad contemplates turning scab), but there's an increasingly senile grandmother in the picture who likes to wander off before breakfast. Oh, and have I mentioned Billy's wee friend Michael (Stuart Wells), whose budding homosexuality and adorable but unrequited crush on our apparently-straight-but-still-only-11-year-old hero is here treated with the most refreshing sensitivity?

Yes, there's actually a lot going on in this little movie, and first-time feature director Stephen Daldry, turning his talents from the theater, handles all of it deftly. (What the heck, it's not like his main story line actually breaks any new narrative ground, is it?)

One silly little quibble, though. (I mean, aside from pointing out that the movie has a serious case of deja vu all over again, and hey, aren't we all used to that?)

Although the movie is set in 1984, most of the songs on the soundtrack (aside from the period-appropriate "Town Called Malice" by the Jam) are 1970s glam-rock tunes by Marc Bolan and T. Rex. Don't get me wrong, I love "Get It On (Bang a Gong)," "Ride a White Swan," "Cosmic Dancer" and all that stuff. But further confused by the film's indeterminate look (a function of the lost-in-the-past appearance of its grimy industrial setting), I found it hard to reconcile hearing Bolan's post-hippie "Children of the Revolution" with all the TV and newspaper glimpses of quintessential '80s icon Margaret Thatcher.

Billy Elliot (R, 104 minutes) – Contains plentiful obscenity and brief fisticuffs and a chaste, same-sex kiss.

 

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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