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Bend it Like Beckham By Matt Singer
A hit in its native Britain, Bend It Like Beckham arrives in the United States with a title that will confuse viewers and content that will delight them. Beckham is one of the world’s most famous football players (a.k.a. soccer, you cultural heathens), and to bend it is to skillfully manipulate said ball. To “bend it like Beckham” is the aspiration of Jess (Parminder Nagra), a talented young football player in a strict Indian family who forbids she play the game. Her struggle is the center of the charming, wonderfully warm movie.
Jess’ conflicts arise when her previously private and small-time football hobby escalates into a passion with a future, after she’s spotted playing in the park (and kicking all the guys’ asses) by Jules (Keira Knightley). Spunky petite Jules, whose family is only slightly more supportive of her footballing than Jess’, nagged former player Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) into forming an all girls squad, and Jules thinks Jess is ready for the big time. Her parents, played with a winning combination of tough love and good humor by Anupam Kher and Shaheen Khan, rebuff all her attempts for approval, so time and again Jess sneaks out, lies, and ignores her parents’ orders, all for the sake of her football playing (and maybe a little for her budding attracting to Joe and his British pop star looks).
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The first hour or so of the film is a bit obvious, and some of the more sappy moments (Such as Jess’ sisters on-and-off again wedding) tend to give the early sections a sitcom air. But as events play and develop, the smartness of the material and director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha’s love of these characters and obvious knowledge of this situation creates a personal feel in the film. Jess’ rebellion and her parents eventual realization and harsh punishment is as formulaic as coming-of-age movies get, but Chadha refuses to take easy outs on her story, and the constant twists and delays of a resolution generate some real tension - you’ll be hard pressed to guess how the film will turn out, even with as little as five or ten minutes left.
As Jess, Parminder Nagra - in her first feature film role - gives a strong, mature performance. She can be funny or sad in the same scene, and, importantly, she’s an utterly convincing football player. The entire company is well cast, but the other truly memorable performance is given by Kher as Jess’ Dad, a stern but well-intentioned man, who initially seems concerned only with “the family” as an entity meant to uphold tradition and make ancestors proud. By the end, he truly has proven himself a good father, and Kher makes the most of the complex characterization in the script. An on-screen dedication and a tearjerker of a final shot firmly cements the father’s place as the perhaps the most important character in this piece, since it is he, not even the protagonist, who learns and grows in a traditional arc.
Comparisons have been made to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I’m not going to do that for the simple reason that I have not seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But I saw Bend It Like Beckham, and I enjoyed it a lot. It speaks from experience, and has a good message about finding a balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the family, religion, and tradition, and - even better - it doesn’t pander to an audience. It doesn’t explain the intimate details of Indian culture or cuisine, it invites us in and lets us share. Shots like the one that pans up from Jess’ huge, rowdy family cooking outdoors, to their white neighbors, sitting quietly alone says more than exposition ever could.