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Sentimental 'Billy' twirls its way to top

"Billy Elliot" isn't a movie about ballet; it's about the pursuit of a dream, and just how liberating that pursuit can be.

The release of "Billy" comes hot on the toe shoed-heels of another teen dance dramedy, "Center Stage," but the similarities end there. "Stage" focused on the relationships between its twirling teenagers; "Billy" is about a young boy who finds his independence, along with his footing, amid a dismal 1984 miners' strike in an England suburb that has torn his family apart.

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    Disenchanted by the boxing lessons that his unemployed father (Gary Lewis) pays 50 pence a week to get him out of their flat, 11-year-old lad Billy (Jamie Bell) becomes interested in ballet. It helps a little that one of the girls in the all-female class, Debbie Wilkinson (a very mature Nicola Blackwell), strikes his fancy, and it helps a lot that the ballet instructor, Debbie's mother, takes Billy under her wing.

    Mrs. Wilkinson's portrayer is Julie Walters, the incandescent actress best known for her flawless turn in "Educating Rita," and who danced once before on-screen, in 1991's "Stepping Out." She's an actress who connotes more with a wink than most do with a page-long monologue. A virtual unknown stateside, Walters is one of England's major talents and earns top billing for a role that is decidedly more supporting than Bell's.

    But what a role it is. And Walters turns this unglamorous working class mom into one of 2000's most memorable performances. Gruff and understated, her Wilkinson is neither sympathetic nor off-putting. She's a sad woman caught up in a world of routine and sacrifice.

    Billy, too, feels trapped by his home life. Like the men of another British film about an unlikely group of male dancers, "The Full Monty," Bobby's life is tinged with sadness. The aforementioned strike has his father at odds with his brother, Tony (Jamie Driven), a man capable of only one emotion - fury - since their mother's passing years earlier. Furthermore, his grandmother suffers from senility. For Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's ability at ballet provides an opportunity to transcend his humble environment: admittance at the Royal Ballet Academy. It would be the first lasting impact she had in another's life.

    The sheer joy Billy experiences through ballet is something even he cannot articulate. But he doesn't need to, because director Stephen Daldry can. He shows us, albeit in an at-times overly melodramatic way, that Billy exists in another plane when practicing ballet, and that world provides him with the escape he needs. However, society in general, and his male-dominated family in particular, dictate that Billy must pursue his interest privately, carrying with him an unfortunate amount of embarrassment.

    It is important to note that "Billy" is not about an adolescent coming to terms with his homosexuality; the film never would stoop to a conclusion as base as that. Instead, it contrasts Billy with a friend who makes just such a revelation. "Billy" is a movie full of characters that do not belong. But Daldry hits home the notion that through ballet, Billy feels comfortable enough in his own skin, and that is all the fitting in he needs.

    Unfortunately, Lee Hall's script is not nearly as graceful as the art form it celebrates. Many necessary smooth character transitions are absent. For example, when Billy's father suddenly decides to support his son's dream, we don't know what his impetus is. Additionally, Hall's action starts to lag after about the 75-minute mark. One possible solution would have been to beef up Mrs. Wilkinson's surrogate mother-relationship with Billy.

    Bell (who has the most magnetic smile this side of Tom Cruise) is quite a remarkable presence, self-assured and sophisticated. I am not sure if he is an actor trained to dance for the movie, a dancer taught to act, or a double threat, but he definitely is one to watch.

    There's one more star in "Billy": Peter Darling's choreography, which is awkward and raw at first as Billy learns his craft, and then grows into something greater. Isn't that just how passion works in real life?

    "Billy" shows us just how triumphant such passion can be.

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