Movies about racial, cultural, generational, or gender divides are so often message-laden snorefests waiting to happen. This seems particularly true of American-produced films, where many critics and moviegoers still seem to think that socially-self-conscious tripe like Crash and Juno has something to say. But our friends across the pond seem to be able to put a fresh twist on tired themes, at least if pictures like Bend It Like Beckham are any indication. In this sharp-witted, energetic comedy about a first-generation Indian-English girl who has aspirations of becoming a professional football (“soccer” as the Yanks call it) player, British-Punjabi director Gurinder Chadha unexpectedly scores a winning goal by addressing themes like feminism and discrimination without devolving into finger-waving or point-making.
The coming of age of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) may be the film’s main focus, though the sharp tongue of her mother (Shaheen Kahn) steals the comic show. Mrs. Bhamra’s quicksilver verbal delivery is as deliciously piquant as the curries she can whip up in a twinkling. Entering Jess’s bedroom at the film’s outset, she unleashes a barrage of motherly reproaches, shattering Jess’s daydreams about head-butting into the net a game-clinching point as a professional player—a move for which she earns an imaginary pat on the head from her idol, football super stud David Beckham (whose presence in the film, beyond the opening scene, is limited to the title). Why Jess would want to kick around a ball all day when she could be learning to cook dal and finding a nice Indian boy to marry is beyond her mother’s comprehension. Jess’s sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) may be a bit of a trollop by nature, but even she’s settling down and marrying. What’s wrong with this tradition-phobic tomboy?
And Jess threatens to break down more than just generational and gender barriers. While playing a pickup game in the park, she catches the attention of fellow football enthusiast Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley), who becomes a fast friend and brings Jess’s talents to the attention of the coach of her women’s team, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As if wasting her time playing a kid’s game wasn’t enough, what would Mr. Bhamra (Anupam Kher) say if he knew his daughter was to become part of a love triangle with Joe and Jules? Joe better watch out; he could find himself at the wrong end of an Indian shotgun.
Actually, Mr. Bhamra’s a pretty reasonable guy; he just doesn’t want his daughter to become a victim of prejudice as he was when he was tossed out of a cricket club by his white English countrymen. And he wouldn’t dare interfere with his wife’s efforts to turn Jess into a traditional Indian housewife either. On the other side of the cultural divide, Jules’s mother (Juliet Stevenson) may not be altogether happy about her daughter’s boyishness either, though she’s far less forceful about it than Mrs. Bhamra. That is, until a hilarious miscommunication leads her to believe that Jules shares Martina Navritalova‘s sexual orientation.
Beckham may not break much new ground visually or thematically, but it’s a solid feel-good flick that stirs both laughter and tears in response to the growing pains of the plucky heroine. Thanks in large part to the witty screenplay and the relatability of the supporting cast, even such a stoic critic as yours truly admits feeling a bit warm and fuzzy when seeing native Englishmen join hands with their Indian brothers. The soundtrack hits another largely positive note, helping contribute to the film’s upbeat atmosphere, though the jazzy pop tunes lack variety and can grate at times. As can the douchiness of Coach Joe, the one weak link in the cast. You’d think they could do a bit better with Jess’s love interest. Rhys Meyers’s talent for whiny effeteness might be better served as the lead singer of saccharine love ballads in a boy band. Slight negatives aside, this is a film you won’t want to kick aside even when the final shots are netted.
Joe’s Grade: B+