As always, Spoiler Alert.
Billy Elliot is one of my favourites. It gets me right in the feels, every time. Which, given my personal history, growing up with parents who actively quashed their kids’ dreams, isn’t much of a surprise.
See, Billy’s dad, Jackie (Gary Lewis), doesn’t support, or even really understand the concept of, dreams. He’s a stolid man, a widower and a miner in northern England during the miners’ strike in the mid-’80s. Already struggling with the death of his wife, the stress of the strike, and trying to provide for his family in poverty, he has no time for flights of fancy. Still, he does his best to provide Billy (Jamie Bell) with some extra things in life, which takes the form of boxing lessons, something at which Billy is woefully inept.
That clip is painful for me to watch, with Jackie yelling from the sidelines at Billy to stop messing about, as it brings back a particularly bad memory. It was the one time my father came to watch my swimming lesson, and it was a nightmare. We were doing forward rolls into the pool, which scared the crap out of me. (Being in the water on a whole scared the crap out of me, but forward rolls were particularly bad, as I was terrified I’d hit my head.) The entire class was doing rolls at the same time, splashing into the water then climbing back out to do it again, with the instructor circulating throughout the group and not paying much attention to me. I was so scared, I kept delaying.
My father was paying attention to me, and he got pissed off, and it wasn’t pretty. He didn’t yell, but when I glanced up and my clearly furious father made an agitated motion to ‘hurry up,’ my knees nearly went out from under me. My father could smell fear the way a shark smells blood in the water, and he had no patience for it. I still remember thinking I might throw up when I realized I’d inadvertently put myself on his radar.
But this is where Billy’s and my journeys diverge. Much to his father’s displeasure, Billy finds his passion in ballet – so much passion that he fights every prohibition his father hands down, in order to continue with his lessons. There’s a lot of sneaking about, and arguments when he gets caught, but Billy doesn’t give up. Eventually, he finds it within himself to stand up to his father.
And his father finally understands. That’s what I love most about Billy Elliot. The adult, who is set in his ways, buying into negative stereotypes about masculinity and fully entrenched in class divisions, recognizes that he’s been wrong and sets out to fix it. (He’s not running away from Billy in the above scene. He’s running to Billy’s dance instructor, to see what getting him into ballet school entails.)
For a lot of years, I’d watch this movie and wonder how my life might have been different, had I stood up to my father the way Billy does to his. But I’ve come to realize it wouldn’t have made a difference. For one thing, I’m no Billy. I’ve never been passionate enough about something to maintain it for any length of time. And even if I had, my father was no Jackie. He didn’t have that care and decency at his core that Jackie does, and no matter how hard I tried to make him, he never would have seen.
So the way in which I watch Billy Elliot has changed over the years. It was a form of therapy for me at first. I used to say it helped me deal with my Daddy Issues, but …
… I don’t use that terminology anymore. Regardless of what you want to call my history, however, this movie did help me come to terms with the details of it. But it’s so versatile that, even though I’ve worked my way through what it was able to help me work my way through, I’m now able to enjoy it on its own terms – as an unapologetically emotional coming of age story that’s worth every tear I’ve shed while watching it.
To see other posts in my venture to watch my movie collection in alphabetical(ish) order, click here.