- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2000

''The Full Monty" endeared itself in part by making incidental fun of "Flashdance," the girlish mishmash of "Rocky" and "Saturday Night Fever." Given the derivative absurdities of the film medium, we now have an eccentric new underdog and diamond in the rough to defy credibility: the young protagonist of "Billy Elliot."

Billy, a motherless lad of 11 portrayed by Jamie Bell, lives in a strike-torn mining community of northern England back in the Thatcherian dark age of the 1980s. While taking boxing classes at a municipal gym, he gets intrigued by a girls' ballet class that overlaps with his ring sessions.

Furtively, Billy joins the girls. He hides this defection from his glowering dad (Gary Lewis) and belligerent older brother (Jamie Draven), whose idea of contentment seems to be eternal fury at the bosses.

Despite no pictorial evidence that would confirm elementary dancing prowess or progress, Billy supposedly erupts as such a prodigy that his instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), urges him to apply for a scholarship to a proper ballet academy in London.

Which way will dad's paternal ambivalence tilt? Can he coerce this toe-shoe heresy out of his wayward and defiant offspring or should he go soft and abet the lad's craving to be a great ballet dancer?

The choices are formulated in a goofy and superficial way, mistaken for heartfelt solicitude by the filmmakers. While keeping the narrative in a cartoonish frame of reference, they take frequent opportunities to celebrate the lyrical urge that pulses in Billy. Sudden, preposterous dance convulsions extend from street to gym to water closet. Not since "Dancer in the Dark" has movement looked so arbitrary. He's an acrobatic one, their Billy, especially when his feats are entrusted to trick photography.

The implication is that Billy's need for kinetic release is so powerful that genius pretty much reveals itself in every dubious leap or spin or levitation. The process of training or refining an expressive gift is a mere formality, the kind of thing movies chronically overlook in order to save time and trivialize effort.

As a matter of fact, Billy appears to botch his academy audition grotesquely, but the fix will be in one way or another. The scholarship panel makes an exception, perhaps to fill a north of England quota that isn't quite clarified by screenwriter Lee Hall, always too busy exulting in Billy's specialness to make sense of anything that happens from gushy, overemphatic sequence to sequence.

On the face of things, a more diverting whopper might be contrived around one of the ballet girls. What's to prevent her from taking a fancy to boxing lessons? She might be emboldened by turnabout Billy. It seems only a matter of time before we encounter a "Girlfight" for the pubescent set. The "Billy Elliot" team, which includes director Stephen Daldry, could have trumped the competition by giving us crisscross breakthroughs in a single package.

The idea of Billy as a dancing snake in the grass becomes perversely appealing when Mr. Elliot or brother Tony go into one of their bellowing-and-blubbering fits, which cry out for retaliation of some kind. Maybe they could get the contagion and enroll in beginning ballet for raging bulls. Take it away, Mrs. Wilkinson, and show no mercy.

TITLE: "Billy Elliot"RATING: R (Frequent profanity, occasional sexual vulgarity, episodes of domestic conflict)CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Daldry. Screenplay by Lee Hall. Cinematography by Brian Tufano. Production design by Maria Djurkovic. Costume design by Stewart Meachem. Choreography by Peter Darling.RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

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