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Rewatching the Queer Canon, Father’s Day Edition: 'Billy Elliot'

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by Oliver Skinner
June 15, 2014 1:52 AM
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Billy Elliot

When I was 12 years old my family moved from a small town with which I had grown to be rather comfortable to a small city where, as all unfortunate new kids are, rather not. Friend- and hobby-less, and really for lack of anything better to do, I decided to become involved with local theatre. My audition for the company required I perform a short monologue and then belt out whichever showtune my little heart desired. Based on what would seem an extraordinary portrayal of my acting and vocal talents, I was rightly cast in an all-dance show. No lines, no singing, just dance. I wasn’t overly thrilled to foresee myself feigning some sort of graceful coordination I knew I’d look like a spaz even attempting to pull off, but hey, at least I‘d been accepted. My mom, reminding me Ryan Gosling was from the city we had just touched down in and had been trained as a dancer, drove to the video store and rented “Billy Elliot”. My parents and I sat together and watched it that evening. The film, quite beautifully, opens with the image of a boy’s hand placing a needle on a record to play T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer”:  I was dancing when I was twelve. I was dancing when I was twelve. And a bit against my will, so was I.

“Billy Elliot” is something of a social realist fairytale. Set in Thatcher-era north-eastern England, the title character (first-timer Jamie Bell) is an 11 year old boy living with his older brother and widowed father (Gary Lewis), both coal miners on strike with the national union. At his boxing lessons in the town gym, an extracurricular activity Billy’s father deems valuable enough to shell over the 50 pence from the family’s tight budget, Billy is intrinsically drawn to the ballet classes taking place across the room. One day, despite some girls’ giggles and with some encouragement from the chainsmoking teacher (Julie Walters), Billy joins in. Without his father’s knowing he begins opting out of the boxing ring, day after day, in order to dance.

The film’s father-son relationship is its most heartfelt aspect. Dads, who rarely feature prominently in queer cinema, are notorious for whittling down their son’s hopes and dreams in favour of helping them learn to face reality “like a man”. In a seriously heated discussion moments after Billy’s father learns his son has taken to pliés and pirouettes, his prejudice weighs in: “Lads do football or boxing or wrestling… not friggin ballet.” Like the boxing gloves that have passed down generations of men in the Elliot family, Billy’s father coldly stares into the inevitable: his youngest son will end up in the mines just like him, and that’s the way it must be.


One frozen Christmas day, Billy’s father walks in on him and his best friend mischievously dancing around the gym together, and Billy, with a mixture of mustered courage and last resort mentality, defies all that is expected of him and expresses his passion to his dad. Mr. Elliot runs away once Billy has finished — assumably in shame — to arrive panting at the teacher’s doorstep and without a mere greeting ask how much it will cost. How much it will cost to travel to far-off London so his boy can audition for the Royal Ballet School and have a shot at life beyond their mining village. The two never look more like father and son than in their first steps entering the academy, clearly working class lads foreign to any semblance of a marble winding staircase, one that echoes as they climb up to the audition, passed by male students in leotards whose fluent footsteps make no sound. Billy’s growth in the narrative is synonymous with his father’s acceptance, which is poignant and only sentimental if your connotations to that word are positive.

But is the film’s adolescent hero gay? It seems likely he’s not, although his orientation is hardly delved into since frankly, the boy is 11. The fact that he must fight against preconceived notions of his gender role is enough to make the film worthy of its queer status. For Billy Elliot, the primary objection his father, brother, and any other of the disapproving townsfolk have against ballet is that it’s for “poofs” — a desire to dance must equate with a desire to suck cock. And at Billy’s age, the strongest piece of knowledge most boys possess about homosexuality is that’s it’s something you just never wanna be. Fortunately he has a sidekick of sorts in facing adversity: his best mate Michael (Stuart Wells), a secret crossdresser with a fondness for Billy. Each scene he appears in is enhanced by the relatability of his position — the confused best friend with unrequited feelings, shyly making advances.

Less than 15 years old, “Billy Elliot” is the first queer classic of the century. Little Jamie Bell needed not prove star potential because with every leap, twirl, and “fuck off”, he was already the film‘s undeniable name in lights. And to think — years later his career has held up so well that he’s whipping Charlotte Gainsbourg’s rear end in a Von Trier film. It’s likewise the cinematic debut of Stephen Daldry, who immediately became a favourite of the Academy, garnering Best Director noms for this and every one of his features to follow. This British drama from the year 2000 is a quintessential feel-good film, empowering in its message and broadly accessible without the drawback of candy-coating.

Still, it will continue to have its greatest effect upon former and present youth who've been made to feel like outsiders for doing what feels natural to receive reactions as if it’s rebellion. While my dancing gig caused me to fall — and I don’t mean in love — sitting down with my parents to watch Billy’s struggle, as a boy who was just about to begin going against the grain myself, sticks with me to this day.

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