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Billy Elliot: Watching a Coming-of-Age Classic

Madison Loughlin

April 10th, 2020


“[Dancing] sort of feels good...It’s sort of safe and that...But once I get going, I sort of forget everything. I sort of disappear. I can feel a change in my whole body. I'm just there... I have this fire in my whole body. I'm a bird. Like electricity...Yeah, like electricity."

Billy Elliot chronicles the coming-of-age of Billy Elliot, an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a coal-mining town in England. This timeless film is set during the 1984-85 strike against the Thatcher closure of British coal mines. Billy’s widowed father, Jackie, and eldest brother both fervently participate in the strike, leaving Billy to his own devices. Jackie dispatches Billy to follow in his footsteps and learn how to box at the community center, despite Billy’s loathing for the sport. Billy’s ability to be himself and pursue his dreams is circumscribed by social, economic, and familial circumstances and norms.

When Billy stumbles upon a ballet class and exhibits an exceptional talent, Mrs. Wilkinson, the class’s instructor, makes a remark which changes his life. With intrepid and unprecedented enthusiasm, Billy renounces boxing classes and decides to pursue ballet. Jackie is disgusted by his son’s passion, since he views ballet as a feminine activity which he feels Billy should not pursue. Therefore, when Mrs. Wilkinson encourages Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet School, tension mounts and the plot thickens.

This film’s deconstruction of stereotypes is refreshing and enlightening. The screenplay distinguishes itself in the way it deals with the question of Billy’s sexual orientation, avoiding prurience and stereotypes. The plot never declares Billy's sexual orientation, thus protesting society's tendency to associate one's passions with their sexual orientation. Billy Elliot challenges the pervasive issue of toxic masculinity that perceives emotional vulnerability and other supposedly “feminine” attributes as diminishing one’s status as a “man.” Billy’s father endorses this toxic mindset by preaching that ballet “is only for girls.” Thus, when Billy pursues ballet, he defies both his father and a large, cultural toxicity. The incorporation of political and economic history serves as a pivotal facet of this bildungsroman story; the tumultuous nature of the coal mine strikes parallels the progress of Billy and Jackie’s reconciliation and Billy’s exploration of happiness and identity. The coal mine strike is an allegory for Billy’s inner conflict between conformity and emotional freedom. To this end, the miners’ strike concludes immediately after Billy receives his audition results for the Royal Ballet School.

Most admirably, the film’s context explores the growth of other characters in addition to the protagonist. Billy’s father evolves to embrace Billy’s wholehearted passion for ballet and in so doing, redefines his role as a father. Jackie struggles to deal with loss and abrupt changes, and his development is illustrated through his deviation from the repressive stereotype of manhood. Jackie’s eventual reverence for emotional expression serves as a foundation for his sincere relationship with Billy, which in turn alleviates his pain.

In addition to the poignant plotline, the pathos evoked by the acting, choreography, and music selection are other remarkable components of this movie. Gary Lewis plays Billy’s father with tangible intensity, underlining the quest of selfhood that amalgamates the various undertones of the film. Jamie Bell, who portrays Billy Elliot, accomplishes convincing the audience of the character’s overwhelming adolescence, courage, and defiance. The ingenious choreography fertilizes Billy’s bewilderment, angst, and spiritual influx in reference to the socioeconomic atmosphere. Billy’s dancing is not for the mere pleasure of the audience, but is rather an empowerment of endurance and self-analysis.

Overall, Billy Elliot is a heart wrenching, thought-provoking movie that is quintessential for any lover of coming-of-age films. Billy Elliot’s themes relating to loss, maturation, family, political identity, and self-actualization remain relevant to modern society. Billy’s growth models an aspirational path of self expression and emotional integrity that crosses gender, class, and artistic boundaries.

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