Movie audiences reliably enjoy just about every ingredient involved in Bend It Like Beckham, an East-meets-West comedy about an Indian family living in London’s Hounslow borough. It blends the cross-cultural and familial dynamics of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the cultural accoutrements of Monsoon Wedding, the underdog-athlete-overcoming-obstacles plot of every sports-themed movie from The Rookie to Rocky, and the feel-good milieu of all these films.
It also features a love triangle, teenage rebellion and coming of age, comic misunderstandings, and as tidily happy an ending as anyone could wish. As an added bonus, American audiences unfamiliar with football culture abroad (that would be the world of soccer to us) will learn who David Beckham is (an English Premiereship superstar) and what "bending it" means (kicking the ball to curve it past the goalkeeper). So what’s not to like?
On the other hand, Bend It Like Beckham is less inspired and more formulaic than any of the films mentioned above. There’s nothing here to compare to the subtlety, beauty, and moral depth of Monsoon Wedding, the endearing eccentricities of Greek Wedding’s characters (e.g., Toula’s father with his Windex and improvisational etymologies), or The Rookie’s genuine love of its sport and positive Christian background.
Where those movies celebrated family relationships, Bend It Like Beckham is much more a celebration of individuality and pursuing one’s dreams in spite of family opposition. Granted, this is a matter of degree and emphasis; and of course pursuing one’s dreams in spite of family opposition isn’t necessarily bad. Yet the film’s mantra that parents don’t always know what’s best for you, that you have to live your own life, etc., is repeated so often that it becomes tiresome, and overwhelms any positive appreciation for family life, except perhaps appreciation for parents who give children room to Be Themselves.
Jesminder Bhamra (engaging newcomer Parminder Nagra) spends too much of the film running around deceiving her traditional Sikh parents (Bollywood star Anupam Kher and Shaheen Khan) in order to play football after being recruited for a local girls’ team by the team’s star player, rail-shaped Juliette (Keira Knightley, Star Wars: Episode I).
The two girls, androgynously nicknamed Jess and Jules, quickly become fast friends, a relationship that’s always more palpable than the romantic tension either is supposed to have with the team’s brooding coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ride With the Devil), an Irish lad whose own footballer days were ended by a knee injury.
Besides this rote romantic triangle, the story is overpadded with sitcom misunderstandings, including subplots in which Jess is believed to have been witnessed kissing a blond boy, Jules and Jess are thought by Jules’s overwrought mum (Juliet Stevenson, Nicholas Nickleby) to be lesbian lovers, Jess is caught in Joe’s arms by her father (though he’s actually only comforting her after a racial slur from an opposing player), and a supporting character who is thought to fancy a member of the opposite sex turns out to actually be gay.
In a twist on formula moviemaking convention, it’s the mothers who are unreasonably intolerant of their daughters’ interest and the fathers who are more sympathetic or flexible. Jules’ dad (Frank Harper, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) bends the ball with her in their back yard while her mum frets that "there’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fellow."
Jess’s mother is similarly disapproving, contrasting Jess unfavorably to her sugar-and-spice older sister, the delicately nicknamed Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who is already engaged to a nice Indian boy, while Jess — Guru Nanak preserve us — cannot even make chapattis. Jess’s dad retains some dignity as a proud immigrant wounded by memories of exclusion from English clubs after first emigrating to the UK, fearful lest his daughter suffer similar ostracism, but open-minded enough to slip into the stands and try to appreciate her talent.
The broadest caricature is Jules’ mother, who lapses into Indian-themed free association whenever she sees Jess ("I made a lovely curry the other day") and creates a humiliating scene over the suspected lesbianism of her daughter and Jess. She’s relieved to finally learn that the girls are not in fact lesbians, though she’s also quick to agree with her daughter’s "not that there’s anything wrong it" disclaimer. ("I was rooting for Martina Navratilova as much as the next person.")
Although it’s not a Bollywood film, like many Indian films Bend It throws in a traditional wedding with lots of color and activity, though director Chadha lacks the visual poetry that Mira Nair brought to Monsoon Wedding. Also, the movie never really lets us care too much about Pinky — and about her fiancé not at all — so there’s no emotional depth to the wedding footage; it’s just an interruption in the football sequences, which are what really matter.
In spite of these weaknesses, the three Js (Jess, Jules, and Joe) are appealing enough to keep things watchable, predictable as the story is. But was it necessary for the film to take such a clear interest in all the locker-room clothes changing? All the closeups of girls in sports bras slipping into and out of their street clothes seem intended to gratify guys accompanying their girlfriends to a girl-empowerment chick flick. Speaking for myself, I would rather have seen more football, well played and well photographed.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.