The Lord of the Dance

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The love affair in ""Billy Elliot"", the debut film from British director Stephen Daldry, begins with three familiar childhood words: "I dare you." There's no way that 11-year-old Billy will fight the cute, tutu-clad girl who delivers the challenge. So he joins her. From there, the film snowballs into a tangle of emotions, secret sessions behind the closed bathroom door and a daily clandestine rendezvous. And it's all completely harmless Billy has fallen for ballet.

Harmless, that is, if Billy (film rookie and veteran dancer Jamie Bell) were anyone but an English coal miner's son in 1984. Billy's Mam has recently died, senile Grandma (a sparkling Jean Heywood) wanders off into the fields without warning and a miners' strike has both dad Jacky (Gary Lewis) and older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) down. The last thing Jacky needs is for his son to skip his boxing lessons to learn ballet. Billy may be an awful boxer, but as Jacky says, "Lads do football or boxing or wrestling. Not frigging ballet." But Jacky's lad is frigging gifted, as dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) discovers. Young Billy thus finds himself facing tests of his loyalty and love, with family on one side, mentor on the other and an undeniable passion inside.

Daldry, formerly artistic director at London's Royal Court Theatre, had the guts, or perhaps naivete, to tackle the overdone British themes of the hard-knocks childhood and working-class-mold-breaker-makes-good. Remember last year's East Is East and the 1998 hit The Full Monty? But with "Billy Elliot", Daldry, now being lauded as this year's stage-to-screen It Boy, la Sam Mendes, does it better.

What Daldry does best is walk "Billy Elliot" along the tightrope Daldry, a former circus performer, claims he can walk a real one between sentimentality and reality. He shares Billy's secret joy, permitting us the exhilaration of watching the boy's feet fly. But he never lets us forget the context: that world of leaden skies where there's only money to pay the grocery bill if you cross the picket line and where Mam's piano has to be chopped up for firewood. As with most feel-good films, there are moments Billy sobbing on Mrs. Wilkinson's shoulder, Jacky sobbing on Tony's shoulder, an emotional neighbor sobbing on your shoulder at the dramatic, if predictable, end when it seems that Daldry is about to take his troupe and walk them off the plank into a sea of cinematic cheese. But he knows just when to stop. Sometimes, he cuts away like a passerby who's seen enough. Or he delivers a zinger, courtesy of the tart-tongued Mrs. Wilkinson or the smart-alecky Billy, for some timely comic relief.

The balancing act owes much to the writing and the acting. The script was inspired by the memories of its writer Lee Hall, who grew up in England's northeast against the same strike-dominated backdrop depicted in the film. Julie Walters continues her tradition of playing strong-willed women with her gritty and graceful portrayal of the tough-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside mother figure who taps Billy's talent. And the casting gods smiled on the project by sending Jamie Bell, with his fresh face, Astaire-like feet and firsthand knowledge of what it's like to dance when nobody thinks it's the kind of thing a guy should do.

How "Billy Elliot" deals with what everybody thinks is in fact crucial to the movie's success. While Daldry describes it as a "small British film," "Billy Elliot" touches on controversial topics, from organized labor in Margaret Thatcher's Britain to class tensions and domestic violence. Sexuality also comes up, with the inevitable question of whether Billy is gay. He's not. But when Billy finds out that his best friend Michael is, the issue becomes, as it should be in the film's intensely personal framework, a matter between friends. Daldry rightly recognizes that "Billy Elliot" is neither the time nor the place for grand political statements or sweeping social commentary.

That leaves the spotlight to more universal themes like growing up and coming into your own as well as such familiar adolescent emotions as the anger and frustration of not being understood. Daldry has said in the past that cinema is a more private medium than theater, allowing a "point of access to our subconscious." Billy the dancer exploits that opening, packing a punch far mightier than anything Billy the boxer ever could manage.

Whether "Billy Elliot" can create the same buzz at the box office as it did at Cannes, Edinburgh and Toronto is a big question. But if rave reviews aren't enough to get people into the cinemas, perhaps three magic words can: "I dare you."