nside every one of us,” the tagline for Billy Elliot promises, “is a special talent waiting to come out. The trick is finding it.” Themes like this one have been explored ad nauseam over the years (in movies from Morning Glory to Rudy to The Cider House Rules), but there is something about the idea of finding your calling that is still appealing. Maybe we have yet to find “it”; maybe the “it” we once found has long since lost the significance it had when it was shiny and new. Either way, these feel-good flicks enable us to experience vicariously that magical instant of discovery.
From both perspectives, Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot satisfies. If you identify with young Billy (Jamie Bell), you walk away feeling content, maybe even a little hopeful. Or, if you pay attention to the supporting characters who have already passed by their “moments,” you might just feel a little saddened. You see, Billy Elliot has more than the tingly-good-feelings associated with its major theme of fulfilling a dream. The film is heavily invested in the hope and promise associated with youth and the sense of impotence and regret linked to lost opportunities and undiscovered or worse, wasted gifts. What interests me about Billy Elliot is that beyond chronicling a series of life-changing events in a boy’s life, the film shapes that boy and his experiences as a representation of things lost to the adults surrounding him. So, behind a triumphant tale of self-discovery is a subtext of anxiety that ultimately enhances what might have been a pretty ordinary film.
The title character of Billy Elliot is, in 1984, an 11-year-old boy whose mother recently died of cancer. His father (Gary Lewis) manages to scrape together 50 pence each week to send him to boxing lessons at the local gym. Unfortunately, our Billy isn’t much of a boxer, but takes his weekly beating without fail or much complaint, until one day he inadvertently gets drawn into the ballet class taking place on the other side of the gym. It’s a great image: gangly Billy in satin boxing shorts and an undershirt, surrounded by prepubescent tutu-ed girls who are paying more attention to him than their plies or their middle-aged, chain-smoking dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Waters). He’s a little lost as far as technique goes okay, he’s a lot lost but at least his clumsiness in the ballet studio results in far less bruising than it does in the boxing ring.
Encouraged by Mrs. Wilkinson’s belief in his unrefined talent, Billy continues with the classes on the sly, certain that his father and older brother, Tony (Jamie Draven), would not approve. And of course, we know why they won’t approve. They are, or so we are meant to think, men’s men: striking coal miners in Northern England, taking a stand, undaunted by violent clashes with the riot police, refusing to cross the picket line even when they are forced to chop up their piano for use as firewood. They fail to see that Billy is neither suited for, nor enjoys boxing, leaving you to wonder whether the boxing lessons are an attempt to offset Billy’s increasingly apparent function in the family. He essentially fulfills his deceased mother’s role around the house, taking care of his grandmother (Jean Heywood) and the housework. As deeply entrenched as they are in their perceived codes of manliness (hardworking, fearless, just, strong, forceful), it’s no wonder that a son and brother who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet slippers would be more than a little troubling for Dad and Tony.
When Dad discovers Billy’s secret, he marches to the gym and yanks his son out of the lesson. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it in his predictable “No son of mine is going to be a ballerina” speech, it’s clear to Billy (and to us) why he is mad. “What are you trying to say, Dad?” Billy asks defiantly and rhetorically as it turns out for he knows that his father’s anxiety surrounds his (Billy’s) sexuality. Thankfully, Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall don’t spend a great deal of time on the issue of Billy’s sexuality: “Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof,” Billy tells his gay friend, Michael (Stuart Wells). And that settles it, as far as Billy, Michael, and the audience are concerned. The film’s refusal to elaborate relegates Billy’s sexual identity to the back burner since it is, in the end, inconsequential and ultimately unrelated to his identity as a dancer.
The irony behind his father and brother’s enraged reaction to Billy’s dancing and the ambiguity of his sexuality (from their view) is that the strike has left them emasculated according to their own code. They cannot directly access the worker/provider part of their identity because they are essentially out of work and penniless. To compensate for that, they fiercely defend their cause as strikers. But when Dad finally sees Billy dance and recognizes his talent and passion, he decides to cross the picket line and go back to work so he can earn the money to send Billy to London to audition for the Royal Ballet School. While this makes him a better father in our eyes and Billy’s, it serves only to further weaken him in the eyes of his fellow strikers, including Tony at first. Gary Lewis’ performance here is especially touching: he does a wonderful job portraying a mixture of shame and sadness (for walking away from the strike, for not backing Billy up sooner). But all of this is compounded when he tells Tony, “It’s my Billy he could be a genius for all we know. Let’s give him a chance.” Standing between angry strikers and the elevator to the mineshaft, he considers the potential genius of his young son and realizes there are no more chances for himself; he’s stuck where he is. He gets on the elevator with the other scabs and is lowered into the mine.
This same sense of regret is apparent in Mrs. Wilkinson, though in a more facile representation. Her determination to see that Billy “makes it” is an obvious attempt to counter her self-image as a washed-up former dancer who never quite made it. Mrs. Wilkinson’s motives, although subconscious, are not lost on Billy: “Don’t pick on me ‘cuz you fucked up your own life!” he screams at her after a particularly rough rehearsal. When Billy leaves for London, she is at a loss, standing alone in the gym, smoking. As with Billy’s father, you feel here that while a door has opened for Billy, another has shut, this time for Mrs. Wilkinson.
Despite these undercurrents of regret, Billy Elliot is ultimately an upbeat story, riding the wave of popularity of such films as Waking Ned Devine and The Full Monty that highlight the well-deserved good fortune of the underdog. At the same time, Billy Elliot complicates the typical “coming into one’s own” theme. It may be true that everyone has a special talent waiting to come out. But then, for every one person who finds his or her “it,” how many are still waiting?