Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing.
6. Billy Elliot (2000) Stephen Daldry
Billy Elliot is the story of a little boy in Britain during the 1984 strike against the Thatcher closing of the coal mines who wants to be a ballet dancer. What could have been a really cheesy and sappy story about breaking barriers and exceeding expectations is actually a deep and sappy story about the same. Director Stephen Daldry’s most recent film was last year’s Oscar nominee, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close another piece of sappy fare. I didn’t see it (as an avid fan of the book I was against the film, in my opinion it was not a story that lends itself to adaptation) but I can see the the seedlings of it in Billy Elliot.
One of the most striking things about the movie was how much it wasn’t really for children. Yes the main character is a young boy, but the film is laced with profanity and sexuality. The movie has been made into a blockbuster Broadway musical for the whole family, but this is definitely apart from that. Never was there a twelve-year old with a mouth like Billy’s…or actually there probably are a lot they just don’t talk like that in front of me. But he is not sugarcoated, the way that child characters can be in movies actually made for children. They do everything right, and if they have a flaw, it’s just the one. I watched one episode of ABC family’s soapy The Secret Life of the American Teenager and was most struck by the fact that the only vice these teens participated in was sex. No drinking, no drugs, and not even any swearing (the amount the show had to use the term “having sex” was silly). Billy and his best friend Michael, a boy struggling with his sexuality, are fully formed characters. They swear and they talk about sex and they dress up in girls clothes because they can.
And the conflict with Billy and his father about the ballet isn’t as cliched as one might expect. It’s not just that Mr. Elliot is a man’s man, he’s also a recently single dad who is involved in an increasingly violent strike and not making money and doesn’t really know how to raise a boy on his own. He’s not just angry that Billy has secretly been taking ballet lessons, he is downright dumbfounded. Why would his son like ballet? What is someone supposed to do about it? Who is my son? As he comes to terms with these questions and begins to understand Billy for the first time, the film really shines. It’s not just about a boy who does ballet, it’s about parents and children understanding each other.
In terms of the gender and sexuality question, the film does a marvelous job handling it. Billy memorably says that he’s not gay just because he likes ballet. His best friend Michael, who is gay, is able to reach out to the Billy as the only other person defying gender norms in their tiny community. It’s a nuanced look at the question, and it’s telling us this happened all the way back in the 80s. All in all the film is a heartwarming sap that isn’t as much of a guilty pleasure as you might expect. And goodness gracious, the dancing is amazing.
Billy Elliot is now 176/717 movies on my flick chart.