Movie Review
Bend It Like Beckham
2002
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Parminder K. Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
B+

i like a tough-love movie. I’m a big noir fan. I like characters whose motives are not always clear, and are maybe a little amoral. I like a little crime, a little cruelty, a little sex, and a lot of strong language. I like scenes that are shocking and maybe disturbing. I like a plot twist I couldn’t possibly see coming. I like a romance fraught with obstacle and tragedy. I like a story I have to work for, think carefully about. I like an ending where someone ends up either crazy, dead, an outcast, ruined or in jail. I like sly, wicked humor roiling with subtext and foreboding, and did I mention the profanity? Or any combination of the above. Make my movies dark.


Billing something as “the feel good movie of the year”, then, is usually a pretty effective deterrent to me. Which is why I wondered if maybe it wasn’t a bad idea that I decided to see Bend It Like Beckham with the intention of reviewing it. In a boldly uncharacteristic move, I left my “I ‘Heart’ Turmoil” beret at home, and bravely forged ahead knowing that I’d probably not encounter a single instance of the f-word, sucking chest wounds, or male full-frontal. In the movie, I mean. We still had the drive to the cinema on a Friday night, after all.


Imagine my shock that I actually enjoyed not being shocked! This movie is sweet, uplifting, spirited, fun and frankly, just downright adorable. And for once in my life I am typing this without rolling my eyes in scorn or using one hand to make some kind of simultaneous rude gesture.


Bend It like Beckham is a story about a girl named Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder K. Nagra), better known as Jess, who comes from an orthodox Sikh family. She worships Manchester United football hero David Beckham and wants nothing more than to follow in his soccer-cleated footsteps. But Jess’ conservative family finds her sporting ways unseemly and forbid her to play. Instead they encourage her to follow their own dream for her, the dream of going to college to become a top-notch solicitor. To make matters worse, Jess’ sister Pinkie (Archie Panjabi) is getting married to a “good Indian boy”, another goal sought after for Jess by her parents. That, and learning to cook the perfect Aloo Gobi, rather than spending all her time in the kitchen distractedly playing hackey-sack with the cabbages.


Jess’ talent for bending a ball like Beckham seems diametrically opposed to her parents’ wish that she be the good Indian daughter they want her to be. She secretly spends weekends in the park kicking a ball around with the guys until Juliette Paxton, a.k.a. “Jules” (Keira Knightley) spots her and recruits her for an all-girls soccer league. Because Jess knows this activity is verboten by her family, she concocts a ruse that leads them to believe that she has picked up an after-school job at a record store to cover for her illicit footballing.


Once on the team, she catches the eye of her Irish coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who played the razor-boned Bowie doppelganger in Todd Haynes’ ode to glam, Velvet Goldmine), who is as much enamored of Jess’ beauty as he is of her incredible talent. Not only is any romance between Jess and Joe impossible in light of their disparate cultures, but her teammate and new best friend Jules secretly has eyes for Joe as well.


The friendship between Jules and Jess is forged and strengthened, not only by each others’ shared love of the game, but also by compassion for the misunderstandings each of them has to bear from their parents. While Jess’ staunchly conservative family find her passion for soccer baffling and inappropriate, Jules’ mother (Paula Paxton, played with restrained British neurosis by Juliet Stevenson) fears that her sporty, short-haired, tom-boyish daughter is a lesbian. These obstacles lead to several sweetly funny moments, like when Jess is spotted outside a tube station by Pinkie’s soon to be in-laws hugging Jules, who they believe to be an English boy she’s surreptitiously dating. Or when Jules’ mom overhears part of an argument the girls are having about coach Joe’s wayward affections, which she confuses for a lover’s spat.


But these minor obstacles are merely a primer for the bigger hurdles to come. When Jess gets busted returning from an exhibition game in Germany by her meddling family, they promptly being policing her with renewed vigor, making her sneaking out to games impossible. This is especially unfortunate given that at the upcoming championship game (which falls, maybe a little unsurprisingly, on the same day as her sister’s wedding) there will be an American scout who could potentially make Jess and Jules’ footballing dreams a reality.


Though Bend it Like Beckham is more light entertainment than feminist soapboxing, it as much a film about girls making a place for themselves in a boy’s world, as it is about bending the rules of tradition to allow for the opportunities presented by modern culture. That being said, Jess’ parents, for all of their faults, are not reduced to crudely drawn authority figures. They don’t simply say “no” and then go bumbling about their business blind to the fact that their children are doing the very things that they were forbidden. They are involved and caring and not opposed to compromise. For example; Pinkie’s wedding is a “love match”, meaning that it was not an arranged marriage, as Sikh custom dictates, but a mate chosen by Pinkie herself who just happens to be “a nice Indian boy”. And Jules’ mom’s terror that Jules may be a lesbian is not driven by any prejudices against being gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In a telling moment she confides her fears saying; “Do you have any idea what people do to people like that?” Even Jess’ dad is not unsympathetic to her plight when he recalls his own athletic past. Seems he had quite a future on the cricket pitch, but on his arrival to England, he found himself culturally ostracized and voluntarily hung up his spikes when he grew tired of turban jokes.


While the theme of cultural exclusion is merely treated as an unsightly wayward crumb atop this formulaic little confection, and not explored in any great or surprising depth, it’s hard to find fault with its inability to dwell on the negative. It is, after all, a happy little movie, and for all that, I didn’t sit in the front row so that I’d have a better chance of hitting the screen when I spit in disgust. Turns out the front row were the only seats available on the fourth showing the night it opened. That, and I am like, so above that kind of tacky display against cinematic convention. Besides, Bend It Like Beckham was busy reminding me that I’m not against escapist movies per se. I just rarely see any done so...wonderfully.


By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2003-09-01
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