It's 1984, it's the middle of a miner's strike, and Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is eleven years old. He lives with his Dad (Gary Lewis), his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and his grandmother (Jean Heywood), a lovely old lady, who is slowly going gaga. Dad and Tony are both out on strike and spend their days on picket lines, and life is as grey and unforgiving as the northern town the family lives in, especially since Billy's mum died last year. It's not mentioned within the family, but the absence of any gentle presence about the house is palpable.
Every week Billy heads off down to the local boys club, hands over 50p that his father can ill-afford, and takes boxing lessons. The trouble is, he's really, really crap at boxing.
Then, one day, he's left to hand over the keys to the club to the teacher of a local ballet class which is sharing the hall. He watches for a while, and since he has nothing better to do while he's waiting, he joins in.
Mrs Wilkinson(Julie Walters), the hard-bitten chain-smoking ballet mistress encourages him to come back, and soon recognises a raw talent in him, which she nurtures (at the expense of her other pupils). For Billy, dance fires his imagination, gives him an outlet to express his anger, his frustration and his joy, and makes him feel alive. Soon his weekly fifty pences are being spent on dance lessons rather than boxing, though he trots off every week with his gloves over his shoulder -- this isn't something his father would understand.
Inevitably, he's found out. His father is livid, and tells him that his money supply is being cut off, and from now on he can stay home and look after his gran instead.
Obviously this isn't the end of the matter. Mrs Wilkinson believes Billy stands a chance of being accepted by the Royal Ballet School, so continues to teach him, privately and for free, and arranges an audition…
This is much more than a movie about a boy who wants to dance though. It deals with identity - Billy's discovery of who he is, and what he wants out of life. It deals with the expectations people have of each other, and how economic hardship and emotional loss manifest in behaviour. It deals with personal priorities and the compromises people are prepared to make for those they love. It deals with the onset of puberty and the awakening of adolescent desire, and it deals with disappointment and with hope.
Julie Walters, as ever, gives a solid, convincing performance as the tough but empathetic teacher, and Jean Heywood and Jamie Draven are both touching as the senile grandmother and the angry older brother. In addition there are a couple of excellent supporting performances from the other two children in the film -- Nicola Blackwell as Mrs Wilkinson's daughter Debbie, and Stewart Wells as Billy's best friend Michael who is recognising and coming to terms with his emerging homosexuality.
However, the real shining stars of the movie are Gary Lewis as Dad, and Jamie Bell as Billy - an unprepossessing boy, skinny and shock-haired with ears that stick out like jug-handles but a grin that lights up the screen. The complexity of the relationship they portray - dominance and defiance, the desire for approval and respect, their mutual pride, and most of all the depth of the love they have for each other and the difficulty they have in expressing it in the face of the harsh realities of their world, is astounding.
This is an absorbing, life-affirming film, well worth seeing.