The titular hero is a precocious 11-year-old (Jamie Bell) whose talent for expressive hoofing clashes with the macho culture of his Northern England mining town. The familiar elements of the coming-of-age genre are all in place--circumstances that conspire to prevent the protagonist from realizing his dream, the unorthodox teacher who recognizes his ability ("Educating Rita's" Julie Walters), the harsh father trying to force him onto a more conventional path ("My Name Is Joe's" Gary Lewis). As an example of just how common this theme is, only last year the excellent "October Sky" set an almost identical story in an Appalachian coal town, with the hero developing an interest in rocketry instead of dance.
"Billy Elliot" is just as effective, aided immeasurably by Bell's sympathetic screen debut as a defiant youngster whose choice of extracurricular activity ends up requiring more courage than the tough-guy sports his dad expects him to pursue. He's particularly impressive in the dance numbers Daldry manages to sneak into key emotional moments without sacrificing the realism of the piece. Refreshingly, Lee Hall's screenplay includes moments of moral weakness for the hero, especially regarding his fear of being branded a homosexual just because he's into dance. Similarly, Walters' delightfully bitchy, chain-smoking instructor is more compelling for being less than an angel.
The film has the occasional problem with pacing, such as when it devotes more time than necessary to sequences involving striking miners battling with police. For the most part, however, the fleet-footed "Billy Elliot" illustrates how classic storylines, in the right hands, can work over and over again. Starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis and Jamie Draven. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by Lee Hall. Produced by Greg Brenman and Jon Finn. A Universal Focus release. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 108 min