In American movies, there has always been a tension, sometimes a thrilling and explosive one, between the sexual freedom of dance and the finely honed straight edge of ”masculine” control. Gene Kelly, with his grinning rat a tat tat athleticism, was a happy contradiction, hoofing his way through musicals like an exultant cowboy (he used his feet as forcefully as Bruce Lee did his fists of fury), and in ”Saturday Night Fever,” arguably the greatest dance film since the demise of the studio system, John Travolta jaywalked across the disco floor with the hormonal dazzle of a porno polyester peacock. His blood may have been on fire, but his moves had a lethally cool, switchblade precision.
When you watch performers like these, masculinity is release. But in the inspirational new Brit prole dance fable Billy Elliot, the title character (Jamie Bell), an 11 year old boy who’s the son of a northern England coal miner, gives in to his desire to express himself on the ballet floor, thereby challenging everything that he has been told to be. He doesn’t so much assert maleness as reinvent it.
Billy, a friendly, fine boned youth with a pensively alert and open face, works out at a local boxing gym that doubles as a ballet studio. Tentatively, then obsessively, he begins to take dance classes in secret, honing his art under the tutelage of the brittle, no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), who pushes him to apply to the Royal Ballet School. The image of Billy with his limbs akimbo, a lone boy amid an ocean of girl students, has a resonance that taps into the fluid gender shifts of our time.
Billy may be doing what he longs to do, but, like the raging young heroine of ”Girlfight,” he’s committing a highly threatening act of role reversal (i.e., acting like a ”poof”). Billy Elliot offers a glimpse of something fresh — a new style male effrontery. Unfortunately, the movie’s role reversal catchiness isn’t all that it has in common with ”Girlfight”: Both films pack greater punch as iconography than they do as storytelling.
The best thing about ”Billy Elliot” is Jamie Bell’s performance. He makes Billy the angelic urchin joyous in a streetwise, unphony way, and his dancing, which fuses classical ballet rigor with a loose jointed pop showmanship, is electric. Yet even as the director, Stephen Daldry, places his star front and center, he doesn’t know how to highlight him. The dance scenes, for all of Bell’s flash, fall into a frustrating limbo between being realistic and being ”won’t this look good in the trailer,” music video ”numbers”; it would have been smarter to go one way or the other.
As for the story, which plays off the 1984 British coal miners’ strike, it’s bumptiously sentimental and unconvincing, a kitchen sink lite melodrama in which Billy’s grouchy widowed dad and even more ill tempered brother are cardboard foils. (The only thing more overstated than these characters is the father’s third act feel good change of heart.) By the end of ”Billy Elliot,” Billy has succeeded in finding a triumphant showcase for his dance fever. Too bad the movie itself never quite provides one.