Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) jumps for joy. He flies, legs kicking like an 11-year-old rock star, as his big brother’s record player spins out a rock ballad. He floats and touches down in stocking feet on his mattress-trampoline. Even when Billy boxes, it’s a dance. Guard down, his feet shuffle dramatically — until the other boy lands a punch that knocks him to the canvas. Through the ropes of the ring, Billy watches girls in white ballet uniforms line the bar on the other side of the gym. Soon a pair of red and blue boxing boots find second position among the white satin slippers: Billy Elliot is learning a new dance.
In Billy Elliot, dance is life. Billy stomps out his frustrations, channeling both his rage and Fred Astaire in a rubber-soled tap that kicks the dust from the streets of his Northern England mining town. His pride jerks his feet into a martial jig. Striking coal miners, like his dad (Gary Lewis of Shallow Grave) and his big brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), skirmish with ubiquitous riot police at the mine’s picket line in an epic ballet of class warfare.
Billy Elliot‘s story is a twist on Swan Lake. In the ballet, a princess magically transformed into a swan is discovered by a prince who falls in love with her and promises her rescue. Talented Billy is bewitched by a force more mundane than magic, namely, poverty. He’s discovered by his dance instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters, Rita of 1983’s Educating Rita), the wife of a mine executive — the closest thing his world has to royalty. She rescues him through dance.
Billy is at its best when it gives us a window into the ironic lives of its families, especially their children. These sixth-graders seem to see, hear and act out the dysfunction and tragedy that surround them. Perhaps the film disappoints by raising issues of class and gender only to leave them hanging as a backdrop, ending elliptically on a false note. These missteps may be forgiven. Billy Elliot is still worthy of applause.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.