"She's got balls, Joe. At least watch her."—Jules (Keira Knightley)
Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder K. Nagra) loves football. Her grandest dream is to play alongside David Beckham himself, driving home that Manchester goal. But her mother and father (Shaheen Khan and Anupam Kher) do not approve for many reasons: football is unseemly for a girl, Jess must focus her attention on school, sister Pinky's (Archie Panjabi) wedding is coming up, and father still smarts from his own rejection years ago by white sportsmen.
So Jess does the obvious thing: she sneaks out and joins a woman's football team. With her best friend Jules (Keira Knightley), Jess and the squad head toward the finals. But before that final whistle blows, there will be plenty of comic complications, ranging from Pinky's wedding to Jess' growing attraction to the altogether-forbidden team coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
Let the game begin!
In the United Kingdom and its former colonial possessions, people know two things: 1) they call it football everywhere but the United States, and 2) David Beckham is the biggest sports star in the world. Forget the Windsors—Beckham and his pop star wife are the badass British royalty of the new millennium. And when Beckham bends that ball toward the goal, physics packs up and takes the train home for the night.
Ironic, that the year Bend It Like Beckham hit theaters back home in its native England, David Beckham had just performed disastrously in the World Cup. Nevertheless, all was forgiven, and the film was a runaway hit at the box office. This, in spite of the fact that it is not really about David Beckham at all. His image lurks in the background, the icon whose face adorns posters and number (lucky 7) marks jerseys, as the object of desire for those whom society says can never aspire to his level of athleticism. Namely, girls.
Bend It Like Beckham takes joy in the game itself: sport as a means of liberation. And Jess seems to need all sorts of liberation. As the younger daughter of a Sikh family living in suburbia, she is conscious of both her race and gender at all times. While her female friends are busy with clothes and boys, Jess only cares about beating the boys on the field. When hyperactive Jules recruits her for the Hounslow Harriers, Jess might be handed the opportunity of a lifetime—if indeed some real opportunity existed for female athletes in her shoes.
Beckham holds out its hoop dreams at arm's length, at least for an audience wondering if Jess and Jules can really be successful at what they love. After all, Jules' real dream is to play in America, where the WUSA does have a professional league and plays a hell of a mean game. In this sense, the film seems more realistic about its heroes' chances than most films of this genre. Of course, Beckham often recycles familiar plot points from similar sports-driven films: there are a few mild lesbian jokes, mom and dad will ultimately be won over, and you know that final game will be decided with a penalty kick. And in the spirit of every "ethnic comedy" to come down the pike these days, there must be a colorful wedding. You know the big messages of this sort of film—"follow your dreams," "love conquers all"—before the action even begins.
But Bend It Like Beckham works effectively because we like the characters. Keira Knightley gives a fierce performance as Jules, a part that can easily be overplayed by a less convincing actor. And while Jess could easily come across as selfish (given her lies to her parents and ambitious nature), Parminder Nagra conveys a gentleness behind Jess' ambition that garners sympathy: we want her to have both her family and her football success.
Directed with the enthusiasm of a Bollywood adventure, Beckham has a raw energy that makes it seem fresher than it probably is. This is not a big studio production, made with an eye for middle America. As such, it does not shy away from the color of life among assimilated Indians in Britain, and it mostly avoids the superficiality that plagued that Greek wedding movie to which Beckham is likely to be compared. No cheap laughs or broad characterizations fill space. These are believable people.
The film also manages to develop its more intriguing themes—ethnic social roles and gender identity—without intrusive exposition. Jess in particular is insecure about both her femininity and her ethnicity, as her parents complain about her need to behave "like a proper woman." And although the film ends comfortably with heterosexual happiness for the sake of the mainstream audience, you cannot deny the sexual sparks between Jules and Jess throughout. Queer theory critics can go to town on this film, but for now, I will spare you what I really think about the sexual politics in Bend It Like Beckham.
Suffice it to say that director Gurinder Chadha portrays football as an exciting and sexy game. Again, the plot itself is full of formula—wacky family wedding, girl proving her independence—but the film's sincerity transcends its lack of originality by virtue of a cheeky script and an exuberant cast.
The film's sense of humor is evident also in the supplements on this Fox DVD. There is a slick featurette, apparently made for a teenage audience for British television, which covers the production itself. Better, there is a solid commentary track by the director and her husband, co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges, who explain which parts of the film are based on Chadha's own family. We get to meet said family in a funny cooking segment in which Chadha, nagged constantly by her mother and aunt, makes us a batch of Aloo Gobi, a popular Indian dish. If you like a nice vegetable curry, give it a try. Some deleted scenes are included, as well as a music video, set to a Bollywood version of "Hot Hot Hot," which includes the entire cast. You can also enjoy the raw footage of Beckham and the Mrs., the former Posh Spice, lip-synching their part for the video. Beckham tries hard to look cool, but is obviously terrified of the camera.
The result, like the feature itself, is endearing without being cloying or sentimental. Of course, Keira Knightley has used this film as a springboard for a career in major Hollywood productions, and she well deserves it judging from her work here. But it is a sign of Hollywood's continuing racism that Parminder K. Nagra will probably get unjustly relegated to minor roles for the rest of her career. Wake up, you studio heads—she is smarter and sexier than the braindead bottle blondes you guys keep sticking on the A-list. She can make a ton of money for your team, if only you let her play.
Bend It Like Beckham is one of those sleeper hits that deserves a look. Everyone involved seems to be having a great time, and the film manages to remain appealing even when we know what is coming. It never exploits its gender or sexual politics for a cheap laugh, and even the requisite happy ending does not feel sentimentalized but well earned. Even if you do not care much for football, you should find Bend It Like Beckham accessible and sincere. And how many studio comedies these days can make that claim?
This court orders the Hounslow Harriers released so they can get to the big game. Fox is commended for sponsoring this up and coming team. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges
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