Durham County, England, in 1984, is a land of dreary brick houses and circumscribed horizons. Billy Elliot, British director Stephen Daldry’s intensely moving first feature, takes place during a miners’ strike that paralyzed the region. Eleven-year-old Billy looks after his senile grandmother, while his widowed father and older brother walk the picket line. He’s a sensitive child, who registers violence like a Geiger counter—his father’s barking, his brother’s rage, and the screaming strikers who face off every morning against scabs and bobbies.
It’s the kind of place where boys risk growing into drunken men who urinate on their children’s snowmen. Billy’s father wants him to learn boxing, but when a dance class begins practicing at his gym, he eyes their tutus with blatant curiosity. Soon his pliés and sashays have captured the attention of his hard-bitten, chain-smoking ballet teacher.
Gary Lewis, as Billy’s father, embodies paternal stupidity, brutality, and tenderness; Julie Walters makes Billy’s grizzled teacher world-weary and just a bit unsympathetic. Jamie Bell’s Billy is luminous and wounded; he almost pulls off some spontaneous dance numbers à la Gene Kelly, though they might have worked better in a theatrical setting.
But in small, deft strokes, Daldry subtly renders the presence of Billy’s dead mother in his imagination, as a mark of his difference from other children, a source of grief and inspiration. His emerging sexuality is also handled with great delicacy—he’s friends with a boy who likes to wear dresses and declines a little girl’s offer to show him her “fanny,” but his coming out as an artist takes pride of place over all other declarations of identity. The deepest issues here concern the sense of family betrayal that often haunts working-class children who embrace artistic vocations. By setting this intimate conflict against a wider social drama, Daldry makes his portrait of a dancer all the more compelling.
The Bronx in 1955 is also something of a battleground in Just Looking, where 14-year-old Lenny (Ryan Merriman) struggles to expand his knowledge of sexuality beyond the confines of his Jewish neighborhood. His father died a year ago; his mother (Patti LuPone) has remarried an overbearing kosher butcher. The newlyweds, needing time to adjust, pack a resentful Lenny off to the pastoral wilderness of Queens for the summer. There, his Italian Catholic uncle (Peter Onorati), some local kids who’ve formed a “Sex Club,” and a shapely neighbor (Gretchen Mol) provide Lenny with an education he can’t get in the Bronx. Marshall Karp’s script is clever and funny, though studded with anachronisms. As a director, Jason Alexander (who played George on Seinfeld) seems to have encouraged performances that leave little to the imagination, at times overly emphatic and (in Merriman’s case) marred by professional self-consciousness.