Following on the heels of British stage director Sam Mendes (now an Oscar-winning film director of American Beauty), British stage director Stephen Daldry offers up his debut feature Billy Elliot, and Oscar talk is more than mere hype. This picture could easily secure the same "wild card" slot that The Full Monty did two years ago. Like that British working class comedy, Elliot blends pathos and laughs in developing a story of ordinary people seeking an artistic release through dance. Both, as such, are formulaic, but Elliot manages to avoid easy criticisms with its strong leading performances, vibrant cinematography, and clever editing.
Jamie Bell plays the title character, a son and younger brother to two miners on strike in northern England in 1984. His father, well played by Gary Lewis, suffers not only the pressures of the strike, but those of single fatherhood, following the death of his wife. Jamie Draven rounds out the family as Billy's tense and radical-minded brother Tony. All are fine, but this movie simply would not work without a performance as brilliantly engaging and plausible as the one Jamie Bell gives here. His raw energy translates to impressive dance sequences, which have enough flaws to suspend disbelief. The second-most-valuable player, Julie Walters, plays the chain-smoking dance instructor, and makes a clichéd role appear effortlessly real.
Billy has a gay friend named Michael (Stuart Wells), who serves as a fulcrum for the gender issues of the story (is Billy a sissy because he likes to dance?). Daldry mostly plays it safe and gay-friendly, though the fact that Michael cross-dresses seems unnecessary in a movie that purports to bust stereotypes.
Daldry takes any active sequence as an opportunity for showing the rhythm of daily existence, so we get subtle (Billy making breakfast) to not so subtle (Tony running from the cops set to the Clash's "London Calling") movement pieces, as well as full-on dance numbers, which truly advance the plot. Daldry never lets his grip slip enough that the audience can take a step back, so sequences that might seem silly in the light of day (like Billy's danced message to his father) pack an emotional wallop in context. As calculated an effort as it may be, Billy Elliot succeeds as an art-house and popular cinema crossover.