If someone were to describe the plot of "Billy Elliot" to you, you might respond derisively with, "Oh, it's one of those." By "those," you'd be thinking of some cheeseball of a feel-good movie. But the problem is, with "Billy Elliot," you'd be completely wrong.
Admittedly, in the telling of the story, it sounds like a movie that shouldn't work. Young Billy (Jamie Bell), growing up amid the macho culture of the 1984 miners' strike in northern England, decides that instead of boxing gloves, he yearns for ballet shoes. In fact, he decides he'd like to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
What follows you may well imagine - it's a tried-and-true formula of triumph over adversity. It is also a formula that directors usually botch and oversentimentalize.
In "Billy Elliot," however, director Stephen Daldry somehow manages to make a joyous and freshly uplifting story. Even in saying such words, I realize the dangerous associations I'm conjuring up of sappy, silly movies. This, however, is exactly the sort of thing Daldry successfully avoids.
Perhaps he avoids it because most of the emotional content of the movie is jagged enough to be convincing. Take Billy's ballet teacher (Julie Walters), a gruff, chain-smoking woman who fills the void left by Billy's deceased mother.
Or there's Billy's ultra-macho father, played by Gary Lewis. He's the hard-working, tough and not terribly understanding guy who should be something of a stock character. Lewis manages to play the role convincingly.
As young Billy, Bell is a star. He's achingly adorable, yet real in a way that his moon-eyed American counterpart Haley Joel Osment has never been. When he dances, you really feel that it is a release from all the pent-up tension and poverty of his life.
Daldry blends his scenes just right, so that when Billy starts dancing, it's never with the sudden jerk of a musical, but in the way a boy walking through an English town might actually dance.