**1/2 Stars
(US 2000)

Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Brenda Blethyn, Jean Haywood, Stuart Wells

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Writing credits: Lee Hall

USA Films * 110 minutes

Screened at: Rialto Theatre, Ridgefield Park, NJ

I'm not quite sure what I make of BILLY ELLIOT. A charming, delightful, wee, quaint yarn in the tradition of THE FULL MONTY, LITTLE VOICE, SAVING GRACE, and BRASSED OFF, it's the story of an charming, delightful, wee quaint lad (the eponymous Billy) who escapes the squalor of his northern England mining village through his love of dance. True charm is natural, unforced and accidental, and when it happens, a preposterous film like THE FULL MONTY becomes a hit. Try to catch lightning twice in a bottle, and you have BILLY ELLIOT.

Eleven-year old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is a coal miner's son in Northern England during the brutal and futile 1984 miner's strike. A sensitive kid living in a macho household with his Neanderthal brother and manly-man father, he dutifully attends the boxing lessons that seem to be so important to dear old dad. However, Billy is more intrigued by the ballet classes that follow the boxing lessons at the local youth center. Inexplicably, he ends up auditing the ballet classes, catching the eye of the chain-smoking instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Wilkinson sees the pure raw potential in this lad, and welcomes the break from telling her less-than-talented daughter Debbie (Nicola Blackwell) to turn her leg out.

Of course, ballet is anathema to dear old Dad's (Gary Lewis) laddish aspirations for his son ("Ballet? Boys don't do ballet. Boys to boxing, or football, or wrestling", all spoken in those marvelous Northern working-class speech patterns). While Dad and brother Tony (Jamie Draven) are hollering, throwing rotten tomatoes at strikebreakers, and busting heads, young Billy is learning jetes and pirouettes. When these testosterone-crazed specimens discover that Billy is squandering his boxing money on a pursuit better suited to a "puffer", all hell breaks loose.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilkinson encourages Billy to try out for the Royal Ballet School in London, where he can develop his talent and escape the dead-end hopelessness of his family. For Billy, it's time to make a choice between family and destiny.

BILLY ELLIOT has all the right elements for a sleeper hit: iconoclastic hero, kids using foul language, the crusty-but lovable teacher, some pretty fair dancing, a great soundtrack of interesting pop songs you haven't heard a million times, gritty English cities that we Americans find quaint, a colorful, if senile, grandmother, male bonding moments, and goodness and justice carrying the day. It also boasts a cross-dressing 11-year-old friend(Stuart Wells) for young Billy to show that no, ballet isn't just for puffers.

At times, the film seems as if it's checking Adorable Moments off a list. It's patently obvious that director Stephen Daldry understood that he had potentially another FULL MONTY on his hands, and was bound and determined to make it so. No matter that the film is rife with things that just don't make sense -- not the least of which is Billy bounding around the studio and streets, doing a bizarre combination of tap and Irish step dancing, when his true passion, and that which he's studying, is ballet. And it is that calculated, checklist quality that stands out most.

Yet BILLY ELLIOT is singlehandedly kept from being the insufferable disaster it ought to by the astonishing newcomer Jamie Bell; a gawky, jug-eared kid who really can dance, albeit the dance of a boy-man who's not quite at home yet in his changing body. Bell is strongly reminiscent of the young Christian Bale from EMPIRE OF THE SUN, and at times his 12-year-old face breaks out into a charmer of a grin that makes you see the heart-melting grown man he will someday become. Bell is a natural, even in "Oh, puh-leez!" moments such as reciting a letter from his dead mother that he's memorized, or dancing in front of his horrified dad. Whether this is Bell's fifteen minutes in the sun, or if he has a real career in front of him, remains to be seen. But this newcomer is charged with the impossible task of making this fresh, and very nearly succeeds.

The U.K. cranks out actors the way the Dominican Republic cranks out shortstops, and indeed, everyone in BILLY ELLIOT is strictly top-notch. As the adults in Billy's life, Julie Walters, in the Brenda Blethyn role of Mrs. Wilkinson, is a far cry from the ingenue she played in EDUCATING RITA. Brittle, disillusioned, an aspiring artist trapped into teaching children that at which she could not succeed, she's Mr. Holland and every other crusty teacher in film history, yet manages to keep the character from being too much of an archetype. Gary Lewis, who resembles a downmarket Ian Holm, is first rate as Billy's dad. Lewis is a wonderfully subtle actor with nearly perfect comic timing, and has some of the rare wry moments in the film.

This is a film that the Academy is going to love. It will undoubtedly receive a handful of award nominations, not the least of which will be the Haley Joel Osment kid-nomination for young Jamie Bell. The motion picture industry's love affair with sequels indicates that it hasn't yet learned that lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. BILLY ELLIOT is a nice little film that would be nicer if it weren't trying so hard. A FULL MONTY is a fluke. This film would have been far better served by making it a first-class BILLY ELLIOT instead.

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