THERE’S something inspiring about how people respond to life’s challenges and it’s particularly moving if the person who responds is a child. Billy Elliot and Pay it Forward tell the stories of two young men who overcome obstacles, respond to challenges and inspire their adult friends.
But not Billy: he’s attracted to his friend Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), and the cross-dressing antics of his friend Michael (Stuart Wells) don’t much interest him. Billy loves to dance: his determination to move with grace and power find a happy resolution when he auditions for a national ballet school. In response to an examiner’s question about how he feels when he dances, Billy says that it’s like electricity runs through him. When first-time director Stephen Daldry captures Billy’s dance, you feel the electricity, the energy that has the power to transform even the hearts of a tough father, and a disapproving brother. This is a very entertaining film, with a first-rate performance by Jamie Bell as Billy.
It’s like an altruistic pyramid scheme – Mother Teresa meets Amway: you do a favour, someone pays it forward three times-do the math: it works! Problem is, Las Vegas is a tough town and Trevor’s mom Arlene (Helen Hunt) is a recovering alcoholic. One of Trevor’s initial attempts to get his scheme underway is to fix up his mother and his teacher. Trevor suffers disappointment upon disappointment: the idea doesn’t seem to work, but, goodness triumphs in the end, and his persistence and creativity inspire more people than he ever imagined.
Director Mimi Leder gets a little lost with her material, mixing sub-plots and flashbacks with the main story line, and choosing a too sweet, too sad way to bring it all to an end. The performances are all very fine, though, especially that of Kevin Spacey who, yet again, shows how more can be communicated through a gesture, or an expression than through several pages of script. And, as much as I was disappointed by the film’s shortcomings, I was intrigued by the idea.
Trevor and Billy-two boys raised by single parents and inspired by teachers, show the resilience of the human spirit. “A little child shall lead them,” says the prophet Isaiah. These two films go a long way towards inspiring viewers to respond to life’s challenges with honesty, creativity and determination. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.