Troubled childhoods are becoming a prominent theme of the fall movie season. This week's entries come from British directors, but they're quite different apart from their nationality and basic subject matter.
Billy Elliot has been described as "The Full Monty" meets "Flashdance," and that nicely sums it up. The hero is a working-class kid in northeastern England, where his family and neighbors are fighting a bitter 1984 strike against the coal-mine owners who employ them and the Thatcher government that's determined to put down the unrest.
Billy is aware of this struggle, but he's preoccupied with more-personal problems. Although his father wants him to become a miner like the family's other men, Billy has discovered an exciting new world that his relatives have hardly heard of: ballet, which he's learning from a local teacher who wants him to audition for a London dance academy.
"Billy Elliot" does a fine job of integrating its political interests with the deeply felt love of dancing that motivates its young hero. It also trumpets the worthwhile message that ballet is just as manly and athletic as any other masculine activity - and maybe a touch more so, if you have to defy an uncomprehending community in order to pursue it.
Also excellent is the cast, headed by newcomer Jamie Bell and veteran Julie Walters, who's best known for "Educating Rita," her 1983 hit. The picture was directed by Stephen Daldry, a first-time filmmaker with a strong theatrical background. He leaps to the screen as gracefully as the dancers celebrated by his likable movie.
The most striking thing about Ratcatcher is the lifelike sense of place brought to it by filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, also making her directorial debut.
You can almost feel the rough-hewn textures of the Glasgow tenement where 12-year-old James lives his difficult life, and this realism underscores his greatest desire - to join his family in a suburban housing project where they've applied for a new home.
Will this dream come true? It depends on whether James's father can keep his drinking and womanizing under control long enough for the authorities to judge them a deserving household. In the meanwhile, James hangs out with his mentally backward best friend, gets precociously involved with a slightly older girl, and contends with a difficult memory: the accidental death of a young neighbor, which James witnessed and is haunted by.
"Ratcatcher" and "Billy Elliot" are sensitively told stories that continue a long line of working-class British coming-of-age tales. They aren't distinguished examples of the breed, but they show that personal and social conscience remain alive and well in British cinema.
'Billy Elliot,' rated R, and 'Ratcatcher,' not rated, contain foul language and adult material.
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