Eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell), a coal miner's son in Northern England, stumbles into a ballet class during his weekly boxing lesson and has his life transformed. With the help of his teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), he displays a true talent for the dance. This upsets his macho father (Gary Lewis) and bullying brother (Jamie Draven) no end, consumed as they are with a strike at the mines and being 'manly' at all costs. But Billy's determination wins the day and, after some very rough spots, he is eventually accepted to London's Royal Ballet School.

Stephen Daldry has directed Lee Hall's predictably warm and fuzzy script for Billy Elliot with great affection and heart. He's been truly fortunate in the casting of the lead: Bell is a scrappily appealing little moppet, like a pocket James Cagney. He's a real charmer and, despite his hard-knock life, full of good cheer for everyone, even a wistful school chum, Michael (Stuart Wells), who is unrequitedly in love with him. Bell is a good, healthy kid in a way to make the late Gene Kelly, who once worked overtime to convince Middle America that dancing was indeed a 'masculine, athletic' pastime, proud. You watch his burgeoning ballet progress with interest but, midway through, Daldry suddenly has him performing a cornball, over-the-top, MTV-ish 'spontaneous' Dance of Anguish that's like the very worst of Flashdance. It throws you completely out of the hitherto rather naturalistic balance of the film and, from then on, things get progressively overwrought, culminating in a flash-forward to the grown Billy about to soar onto the stage in that abysmally precious, all-male Matthew Bourne/Cameron Mackintosh production of Swan Lake. (A badly made-up 'aged' Dad and brother also show up at this 'triumph,' as does the grown Michael, now fully out and proud with black lover in tow.) There's a certain sense of violation on the viewer's part, to have all one's trusted suspension of disbelief suddenly run over by such a barrage of easy clich.

Walters has a highly likeable, drab feistiness here, and Nicola Blackwell, the little actress who plays her chirpy, freewheeling daughter, is a delight. Lewis and Draven don't have much to do other than bluster and fuss, and Jean Heywood as a kooky grandmother gives early hints of the stereotyped pandering that is to follow.

--David Noh