A confession is in order: there are movies whose feel-good sentiments and slick craft annoy me so deeply that I know they will become box-office successes or top prizewinners. I call this internal mechanism my Built-In Hit Detector. I squirm through these masterpieces of emotional pornography, jotting down derisive notes. Oh, if the contrivance is blatant enough, I may get a bit teary; it is, after all, no more difficult for filmmakers to make an audience cry by depicting, say, a child in jeopardy than it is for a lap dancer to evoke an erection in her client. At the end I have the gloomy certitude that moviegoers will love Ghost or Cinema Paradiso or The Full Monty every bit as much as I disliked it. There--I've said it. Is everyone alienated?
Billy Elliot, the new British film about an 11-year-old from a coal-mining town who wants to be a ballet dancer, is a prime example of elevated kitsch. Written by playwright Lee Hall, Billy echoes most of the manipulative inspirational films of the past 20 years. The movie could be called Chariots of Flashdance, Strictly Ballet, Smile--Life Is Beautiful! Audience members, already primed to love a losers-win story about a poor boy with big dreams, don't have to bring anything to the film, because director Stephen Daldry does all the work for them. Sentimental movies need subtlety; this one goes after every sweet little effect with a sledgehammer so large that the film could have been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.
We're in the drab northeastern town of Easington in 1984, the year of a crippling coal strike, and Billy (Jamie Bell) is taking boxing lessons at the insistence of his gruff widower dad (Gary Lewis). But the boy really wants to dance. He's got happy feet that can drive him into a dervish fury. He finds a crabby, loving teacher (Julie Walters), who is impressed enough by his skill and spirit that she prods him to apply to the Royal Ballet school. Thus ensue the inevitable domestic disputes, softening of hard hearts and pirouettes in heroic slow motion.
This is the first feature for stage director Daldry (An Inspector Calls), yet he displays an awesome instinct for cinematic manipulation. He loads every image with emotive propaganda (this character noble, this one morally myopic) and lards it with music that cues you to weeping or cheering. Billy Elliot is about as open to unforced feeling as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
The Truth in Criticizing Law demands that I tell you what's good about the movie. The cast is mostly fine, especially the kids: Stuart Wells as Billy's effeminate friend (at home he dresses up in women's clothes--just like his dad!); Nicola Blackwell as the teacher's precocious daughter (she has a near sex experience with Billy); Jamie Draven as Billy's tough brother (star quality could be blooming there); and Bell, a comely lad whose unaffected poise carries the film and brings charm to its excesses. It's a victory for Bell to be so natural in a movie so calculating. And victorious they both may be, perhaps even at Oscar time. At a Manhattan screening last week, one Academy member effused, "I'm marking it off in all categories!"
So bank on my Hit Detector. The better class of moviegoers will love Billy Elliot. And I loved hating it.
--By Richard Corliss