Bend It Like Beckham
Director : Gurinder Chadha
Screenplay : Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, Guljit Bindra
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Parminder K. Nagra (Jesminder Bhamra), Keira Knightley (Juliette Paxton), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Joe), Anupam Kher (Mr. Bhamra), Archie Panjabi (Pinky Bhamra), Shaznay Lewis (Mel), Frank Harper (Alan Paxton), Juliet Stevenson (Paula Paxton), Shaheen Khan (Mrs. Bhamra), Ameet Chana (Tony)
Bend It Like Beckham, a culture-clash sports comedy about the difficulties faced by young women who don’t embrace their traditional roles and just want to play soccer (I mean, football), was a sleeper hit in England last year and has become a word-of-mouth hit in the U.S. ever since its release a few months ago. Its success on both shores is not particularly surprising since it offers the kind of easy-to-swallow, feel-good entertainment that audiences love, spiced with a dash of proto-feminist grrl power to make you think you’ve seen something noble.
The story centers around two teenage girls, both of whom are facing pressures from their parents to be someone they’re not. The main character is Jess Bhamra (Parminder K. Nagra), whose traditional Sikh family (particularly her mother, played as a broad ethnic stereotype by Shaheen Khan) feels it is more important for her to learn how to cook traditional meals and find a nice Indian boy to marry than kick a soccer ball around in the local park with a bunch of boys. Unfortunately, that’s all Jess wants to do, and she’s constantly sneaking around her mother’s back to play her beloved sport, and when she has to confess to someone, she does it to a poster of Manchester United superstar David Beckham, which graces the slanted wall above her bed.
Jess is recruited for a girls’ soccer league team by Juliette Paxton (Keira Knightley), who’s facing her own issues at home. Again, it’s the mother that’s causing problems for the enlightened young woman, although Juliette’s mum (Juliet Stevenson) is clinging to an entirely different set of traditional notions, primarily involving femininity and heterosexuality, both of which she fears Juliette is lacking because she plays soccer. The division between these two characters is introduced via underwear, as the two are shopping in a department store and Juliette’s mother tries to convince her to buy various lacey push-up bras while Juliette heads straight to the sports bra rack.
At its heart, Bend It Like Beckham is about a number of important issues facing young women in an increasingly globalized society, including issues of femininity, sexuality, family, religious traditions, and so forth. The answer the movie offers to these perplexing issues is follow your heart and everything will eventually fall into place, which gives you a nice, warm feeling with which to walk out of the theater, but is also a bit too trite. The movie’s desperation to please is evident in virtually every frame, particularly in the clumsy romantic triangle that develops between Jess, Juliette, and their soccer coach, the fresh-faced Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who could have been a great player himself if his overbearing father hadn’t pushed him too hard and caused him to blow out his knee (like any movie about teenagers, virtually every problem faced by the young protagonists is traceable to their parents).
Formulaic though it is, the movie often works, particularly in the relationship between Jess and Juliette (when it isn’t straining through the chemistry-less romantic triangle subplot). Parminder K. Nagra and Keira Knightley are both wonderful young performers, and they bring a natural energy to their roles, making Jess and Juliette genuinely endearing characters. Director Gurinder Chadha lays it on a little too thick at times, and the manner in which she deals with Jess’s familial background verges uncomfortably on outright parody—she wants to make the point that tradition is fine until it gets in the way of progress and achieving one’s true dreams, but it still comes off like the movie’s making fun of Sikh customs and values.
The movie sets up its easy dichotomy of the young (independent, motivated, liberal, tolerant) versus the old (close-minded, staid, conventional) and runs with it, meaning that the only people who won’t find some kind of easy enjoyment in the film are the ones who truly believe that Jess shouldn’t be allowed to play soccer and that Juliette should only wear frilly dresses. Interestingly enough, though, that dichotomy doesn’t extend in terms of gender, as it is entirely older women who stand in the way of Jess and Juliette achieving their dreams. The only support they get is from their fathers, from Joe, and from Jess’s buddy Tony (Ameet Chana), which suggests that independent young women are no longer hampered by the formulaic expectations of domineering men, but rather the very women who should be encouraging their independence, the kind they never had.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick