Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 17, 2003
Free Kick

An Indian soccer player\r\ndreams of being able\r\nto Bend It Like Beckham.


David Beckham is one of the biggest celebrities in the English-speaking world, but we Amurricans can be forgiven for never having heard of him. He’s England’s best current soccer player, a playmaking midfielder for both the national team and the venerable Manchester United club. He’s known for his laser-guided passes, silky style, leadership skills, and especially for his ability to “bend” free kicks and corner kicks toward the opponent’s goal, a facet of the game at which he is by consensus the best in the world. Off the field, he has built up a ubiquitous media presence by actively courting the press, starring in a series of hip humorous tv commercials, experimenting with practically every hairstyle imaginable, and marrying Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams when the Spice Girls were at the height of their fame. In many respects, he has shown the super-macho culture of English soccer a different way to be.

Bend It Like Beckham is all about being a different way. It also assumes that you know all the above information, which is a safe assumption if you’re British or have the slightest interest in competitive soccer. Nevertheless, even Yanks who care nothing for “the other football” can easily see why this crowd-pleasing comedy has become one of Britain’s largest box-office hits.

Like millions of English kids, Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) idolizes Beckham, wallpapering her room with his picture, confiding her deepest secrets to the big poster of him directly over her bed, and imitating his elusive moves when she goes out in the park to kick the ball around with the guys. It’s while she’s doing this that Juliette “Jules” Paxton (Keira Knightley), the captain of a local girls’ team called the Hounslow Harriers, spots her and asks her to join up. Playing for the Harriers exposes Jess to an entirely different crowd of friends and to possibilities she didn’t know of, like the existence of a women’s pro league in America. Her family, though, sees law school and a traditional Indian marriage in her future. Her mother (Shaheen Khan) thinks she should be learning how to fry chapatti and aloo gobi, her Sikh father (Anupam Kher) still feels the sting of being forbidden to play cricket in England because of his ethnicity, and her ultra-feminine sister (Archie Panjabi) claims that her own impending marriage is being threatened by Jessie’s football obsession. Jess sums up the situation rather astutely: “[Soccer] is taking me away from everything they know.”

American audiences may remember writer-director Gurinder Chadha’s previous film, a scattered and weepy Thanksgiving drama called What’s Cooking? This comedy is a marked improvement, partly because she’s working in a setting that’s more familiar to her, and she’s more comfortable playing the material for laughs. The tone of both movies reflects a fuzzy sort of multiculturalism, but this film finds her better at exploiting the gaps between cultures and the capacity for friction and misunderstanding.

She could use some improvement with story structure — at least four scenes end with Jess’ parents discovering her doing something she’s not supposed to do — but Chadha makes up for it by exploring her subject from many different angles. On the one hand, this is a sports movie, with Jess overcoming her mistakes (including a blunder not unlike the one that Beckham committed in the 1998 World Cup tournament) to lead her team to glory. However, we also get sidelights on the various kinds of pressures placed on Indian women in British society, and the struggles of female soccer players for acceptance from men. There’s even stuff on the difficulties of an athlete’s romantic involvement with a coach, as Jess falls for Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the team’s handsome Irish manager who’s barely older than she is. That proves to be a key point, as Jules, who has become Jess’ best friend, likes Joe herself and feels betrayed when she discovers that he’s with Jessie. The way the film and its two actresses, who are both relatively new on the scene, handle the complicated friendship between the girls is a particularly strong point.

If the film occasionally gets a cheap laugh, it also gives us priceless bits like the one after the climactic game, where Jess’ victorious teammates carry her into the dressing room and then help her get back into her sari so she can return to her sister’s wedding. It’s no great surprise that by being more specifically Indian-British, Bend It Like Beckham becomes more accessible to American audiences than the Hollywood-style comedies that have come out of Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, we can relate to the joy of achieving one’s goals — or scoring them.

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