SUBJECTS — Dance, World/England;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Families in Crisis; Father/Son; Courage; Grieving; Friendship; Parenting; Grandparents; GLBTQ; Education;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring; Responsibility; Respect; Trustworthiness.
MPAA Rating — R (for language); Drama; 2000; 110 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Billy, the 11-year-old son of an English mining family, stumbles onto a ballet class held in the same community center as his boxing lessons. Billy’s family is under tremendous strain. His mother has just died. Billy’s grandmother has a tendency to wander off and cannot take care of herself. Billy’s father, a miner of limited education, and his older brother are walking the picket lines during the violent and unsuccessful 1984 British miner’s strike. There is little money. Billy’s father doesn’t approve of boys taking ballet, while Billy finds that he would rather dance than do anything else. Will Billy pursue his dream? Will the beleaguered Elliot family pull together and heal?
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 2001 British Academy Awards: Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film; Best Actor (Bell); Best Supporting Actress (Walters) 2001 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Walters), Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, 2001 British Academy Awards Nominations: Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Music, Best Supporting Actor (Lewis).
Featured Actors: Julie Walters, Jamie Bell, Jamie Draven, Gary Lewis (III), Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells, Mike Elliot, Janine Birkett.
Director: Stephen Daldry.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This warmhearted story shows children the rewards of perseverance in following their own star despite parental or popular opinion. It demonstrates the redemptive agency of love in a family under enormous stress and shows a father coming through as a parent after some egregious errors. The film illuminates the tensions and sorrows of a family dealing with the loss of its wife and mother while the grandmother gently sinks into senility. (Billy lovingly takes care of his grandmother.) In this film, a friendship between two boys survives the fact that one is homosexual and the other probably is not. “Billy Elliot” also illustrates the far-reaching influence that a dedicated teacher can have on a child’s development.
The family’s struggle is set against the background of the 1984 English coal miner’s strike in which the British government, determined to drastically reform the country’s bloated and inefficient coal industry, crushed the miner’s union, and changed English society. The film reveals the sacrifices required of striking union workers and their families, as well as the anguish of a community whose way of life is doomed in the face of new economic conditions.
SERIOUS. Profanity pervades the dialogue. Billy’s father and older brother Tony curse continually. Billy and his friend Michael curse matter-of-factly. Though softened by an English North Country/Scottish Border accent, the f… word, pronounced as rhyming with “cook,” is heard in every sentence of some speeches. See Discussion Question #19.
The family pulls together in the end, but not before violent arguments. In one of them, the father, pushed to his limits by not being able to support his family, by the strike, by the recent death of his wife, by having to raise a child he cannot understand, and by many other events beyond his control, throws Billy against a wall. The father also hits his older son, an adult, drawing blood in a futile attempt to stop the young man from an early morning foray to damage company property. There are frequent violent clashes between the police and striking miners. Billy hits another child. No gore is shown, and there is no thrill factor to the violence in this film. No serious injury is suffered by anyone in these incidents.
Billy defies his father and surreptitiously attends dance classes. While some parents might object to this part of the story, we see it as a strength. The father’s insistence that Billy box rather than take ballet restricted the growth and development of his child. Had Billy complied with that instruction, he would have missed his life’s calling. In other words, the parent was wrong in such a fundamental way that the child’s disobedience was justified.
Billy’s best friend Michael tries on women’s clothing, as the film reveals his nascent homosexuality. The film accepts Michael’s homosexuality without any negative implication. Some parents may object to anything other than a negative portrayal of homosexuality. However, Billy, who appears to be heterosexual, is able to gently decline Michael’s advances and set boundaries to their relationship. In this way, the film provides an excellent model for the maintenance of friendships between people who are substantially different. In addition, the juxtaposition of Billy, who dances and is heterosexual, with Michael, who is homosexual but does not dance, demonstrates the fallacy of stereotyping the sexual orientations of male ballet dancers. We see the film’s treatment of this friendship as a strength of the movie.
The film shows a community at odds with its government. The strikers protest and the police attack. A striker moons the police. This incident distracts a librarian while Billy steals a book on ballet that the librarian would not let him check out. The police are a constant and malevolent presence.
There is a lot of smoking in the film.
Why recommend this film with all of these possible problems? The reason is twofold. First, pervading the film and triumphing at the end is the essential human quality of loving and caring for others. Second, the film has many positive lessons, and, except for the profanity and the smoking, each possible problem has a strong and corresponding benefit.
Review the Helpful Background section so that you can answer questions that may arise as your child watches the film. Describe any experiences you or people you know may have had in breaking out of the traditional roles that their family or society had set out for them and charting a new course based on their own interests and goals. Ask the Quick Discussion Question.
Britain’s Royal Ballet School was founded in 1926 by Dame Ninette De Valois. Prospective students (like Billy Elliot) are auditioned at sites around the country. The school offers an eight-year training program in dance, fine arts and academics. The Royal Ballet School is a feeder school for Britain’s Royal Ballet and the Royal Birmingham Ballet. Equivalent schools in the United States are the School of American Ballet (affiliated with New York City Ballet) and the American Ballet Theater Summer Intensive School, though they do not receive the government support provided to the Royal Ballet School. See Website for the Royal Ballet School.
The study of classical ballet is physically rigorous, tantamount to engaging in the most grueling sports activities. Many professional athletes have been sent to ballet class to improve their balance, agility and flexibility. Dancing has the added demand that the leaps, spins, and turns are graceful and apparently effortless. Imagine basketball, baseball, football, or tennis with no grunts, grimaces, or spitting allowed!
The rule of thumb is that it takes eight years of training to create a professional ballet dancer, but that varies with the physical attributes of each student. In general, girls have to start studying at a younger age, preferably 6 to 9, in order to be ready to dance on pointe (in toe shoes). Serious boy students also train with weights so they’ll be able to lift 120-pound girls overhead with ease. A dancer’s body has been compared to a perfectly tuned instrument: extraordinarily coordinated, limber, strong, and musically responsive.
The author of the script, Lee Hall, stated that, “The story sort of wrote itself once I had the image of the kid at odds with his family and the community and pitted against a larger, hostile world.” Speaking about the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Hall said, “It was a class war where the state was mobilized against a small group of people. It left me with a sense of indignation which has fuelled much of my work.”
The 1984-85 miners strike was a watershed in British history. At the time in which this film is set, the British coal industry was owned by the government. It was enormous, at one time employing a million men. In 1984 it was bloated, inefficient and cost British taxpayers hundreds of millions each year in subsidies. Production was greatly in excess of demand and new and cleaner sources of energy, oil and natural gas, were coming on line from the North Sea. The British Government was in the hands of Margaret Thatcher, a conservative prime minister, who wanted to sell off state owned industries, crush the unions, close many mines (or pits, as the English call them) and lay off hundreds of thousands of miners. The government argued that widespread mine closings were the only way to make the industry economically rational.
Facing not only the wholesale loss of jobs but also destruction of the many mining communities that were dependent on the mines as their sole source of employment, the union leaders called a strike. As mentioned in the film, the union leadership had Communist sympathies, the strike was imposed from above, and it was never popular with the rank and file. However, the miners were tremendously loyal to the unions. Historically, it had only been the unions, often through bitter strikes, which had secured enhanced safety and improved pay and benefits for the miners. In class-conscious Britain, loyalty to the union was very much associated with the worker’s loyalty to their class, the working class. Once the strike was called, the union membership came out in force.
The government, sitting on more than six months of coal reserves, with an economy that increasingly used gas and oil rather than coal, and with an ideological bent to crush the unions, aggressively mobilized the police against the strikers. After a year of bitter struggle, the strike collapsed, and the miners went back to work.
In the years following the strike, most of the mines were shut down and entire communities were devastated. The British trade union movement has never recovered. The effects of the strike can be seen in the policies of the New Labour governments of Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which have abandoned many of the traditional Labour Party positions for more capitalist and centrist policies.
2. Describe the role that the 1984-85 miners strike played in the film. What was at stake for the miners?
At stake for the miners were not only economic issues such as wages, benefits and job security but also their very way of life. Many of their towns were economically dependent on the coal industry and the government wanted to shut the mines down.
3. In the 1984-85 miners strike, why did the British Government oppose the miners so strongly?
The British coal industry at the time was very poorly organized and inefficient. Many, if not most, coal mines were losing proposition. The government-owned the mines and had to subsidize them. There were other, less polluting and cheaper sources of fuel developing in the North Sea (oil and gas). The cost of subsidizing the coal industry was a drag on the entire British economy.
4. Why was it ironic that Mrs. Wilkinson’s husband, who had himself been made “redundant,” took the position that the miners should abandon their strike?
If the coal miners lost the strike, they too would be made redundant when the unprofitable mines were closed.
5. When Billy was asked, “What does it feel like when you dance?,” He answered “It sort of feels good. It starts stiff and that but once I get going, then I like forget everything and I sort of disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body — like there’s fire in my body. I’m just there — flyin’ like a bird — like electricity, — yeah, like electricity.” Do you get that type of feeling from anything that you do?
6. What are the similarities between dancers and athletes who play football, baseball, basketball or tennis? What are the differences?
Each of them are athletes whose performance demands strength, endurance, and endless hours of practice. The differences are that for dancers the result is art, and for other athletes, the result is doing well in competitions.
7. For Boys: If you wanted to be a ballet dancer, how do you think your schoolmates would react? Would that reaction be justified? Would you have the courage to tell your friends at school that you were dancing?
8. What would have happened to Billy and what kind of life would he have led, if it had not been for his teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson?
Billy might not have found what he loved to do.
9. What was Mrs. Wilkinson’s motivation in teaching ballet class?
She loved the ballet and wanted to see children enjoy it as well.
10. Why was Mrs. Wilkinson especially interested in teaching ballet to Billy?
Every teacher dreams of being the agent for allowing a child to find him or herself.
1. Describe the emotional growth of Billy and of his father in the film. Which character showed the most emotional growth?
FRIENDSHIP – SEXUAL ORIENTATION
2. Should Billy have maintained his friendship with Michael after he realized that Michael was a homosexual? Can a straight person maintain a friendship with someone of the same sex who is a homosexual?
Yes to both questions. Each person has to respect the boundaries of the other.
3. The character of Billy Elliot was able to set boundaries to his relationship with Michael that permitted them to be friends but stopped at any sexual relationship between them. Describe the scenes in which this occurred. Do you have relationships in which boundaries are set by you or by someone else? Can you describe the relationship, what the boundaries are, and how they have been set?
4. Do you have friends that are very different from you in some ways? What is the basis for these friendships?
5. When Billy left for ballet school and said goodbye to Michael, he kissed Michael on the cheek. What was Billy saying to Michael by that action?
It is a gesture of friendship, telling Michael that Billy loved him as a friend even if Michael was a homosexual.
6. Are all male ballet dancers homosexual?
PARENTING – FATHER/SON – FAMILIES IN CRISIS
7. Evaluate Billy’s father as a parent. What did he do well and what did he do poorly?
He was better at the end than at the beginning. He did poorly in trying to stop Billy from dancing, and he did well when he decided to help his son find the career that he loved.
8. What should happen to parents who commit serious errors like Billy’s father did?
If they recognize their error and seek to make it up, they should be permitted to do so. In addition, sometimes kids just don’t have the best parents. Until and unless the parent’s neglect or abuse of the child rises to intolerable levels, it is the child’s lot in life to endure them. The question of what is an intolerable level is different in every society.
9. During the course of the movie, Billy’s family endures several crises and conflicts. Please describe them and describe how the family dealt with them.
10. How did Billy grieve for his mother?
11. Why did the father break down and cry at Christmas?
12. Why did Billy show his mother’s letter to Mrs. Wilkinson?
13. Remember the scenes in which Billy dances into walls? What does this scene show? What type of literary convention is it?
It is a symbol of the fact that Billy’s life at that time is a dead end, and he hasn’t figured a way out.
14. Describe some situations that you have heard about in your own life in which people have broken out of the expectations that their parents, family, and community had of them and have done something unexpected with their lives.
15. Was it right for Billy to be given responsibility for caring for his grandmother?
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
1. Did Billy do the right thing in lying to his father about going to ballet class? Was there a better way to handle it? In what circumstances are children justified in defying their parents? Describe some situations in which a child would be justified in lying to his or her parents. Describe some situations in which a child would not be justified in lying to his or her parents.
2. Remember the scene when Billy “borrows” the library book about ballet while the librarian is distracted by a striker mooning the police? What do these two actions have in common and why did the screenwriter juxtapose these two scenes?
3. When Billy was in the library and wanted the ballet book, but the librarian wouldn’t let him take it out, Billy decided to “borrow” it against the rules. How could Billy have resolved this situation and complied with the ethical principle of trustworthiness?
4. Why was it so difficult for Billy’s father to cross the picket line? Was he being disloyal to his class, his union, and his fellow workers? What other moral values were motivating him?
5. When Billy’s father tried to stop the older son from the early morning foray to destroy company property, which of the Six Pillars of Character was the father following? Which was the son ignoring?
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
6. Obviously, Billy didn’t obey the ethical principle of respect for others when he hit the ballet student who was trying to talk to him after the tryout. What caused him to attempt to resolve this situation with violence?
7. Initially, did Billy’s father respect his son’s desire to dance?
8. Did the striking miners treat the police with respect? Did the police treat the striking minors with respect? Evaluate the conduct of each in terms of this ethical principle.
9. A wise woman once said, “Profanity is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” What did she mean by that? A wise man once said that cursing degrades the level of human interaction by reducing people, things and situations to the scatological, the base or the animal. What did he mean by that? Finally, the wise woman added that swearing shows a lack of style and finesse. Do you agree or disagree?
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the “Social-Emotional Learning/Friendship/Sexual Orientation” section above.)
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
10. There were times when Billy didn’t obey his father, especially about taking dance lessons. What do you think of this behavior?
11. Did dancing always come easily for Billy?
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
12. Billy’s father made a number of serious mistakes, like throwing Billy against the wall and making it hard for him to take ballet lessons. Was he ultimately a good father? Defend your answer.
13. Billy’s family had a lot of problems, but they had one big thing going for them. What was it?
(Additional questions on this topic are set out in the “Social-Emotional Learning/Parenting, Father/Son and Families in Crisis” section above.)