Bend it Like Beckham is the kind of movie that challenges
my capacity for humanity. It features female empowerment,
a celebration of diversity, peace-making between parents and
children. Its characters all reach a greater understanding
and find happiness. But if you want me to tell you to see
this movie because it will make you feel good, because that’s
why the average person really goes to the movies anyway,
stop reading now and go buy your own personal copy of My
Big Fat Greek Wedding. I am an irredeemable spoilsport
with shameless intellectual pretensions. You can’t say I didn’t
I haven’t come to bury Bend it Like Beckham, but I’m
not going to praise it wholeheartedly either. I am suspicious
of films that make me ask myself, “What’s not to like? What’s
my problem?” Such movies are often trying much too hard to
please, to be unobjectionable. In response, my stomach churns.
They are crowd-pleasers and are more likely to exhaust me
than delight me with their insatiable need to charm. During
these frantic displays of performance anxiety, I cannot enjoy
myself, but, inexplicably, I feel as if I should. Ironically,
this also makes it more difficult for me to appreciate true
virtues. There is a lot to like about Bend it Like
Beckham – but I can’t get past the fact that the movie
wants to bounce me over its springy field, aim me at a clever
angle, then entangle me in its net. Score!
Jesminder, or Jes for short (Nagra), is a talented,
teenaged soccer (referred to in Britain as “football”) enthusiast
living in contemporary London. Unfortunately, her Indian Sikh
parents have other plans for her feminine destiny – learn
to cook Aloo Gobi and marry a nice Indian boy. The title
refers to Jes’ idol, David Beckham, real-life soccer star
supreme, whose sporty visage hangs on the wall of Jes’ room
like a benevolent deity and reminds her of her true path.
Football is such an essential element of Jess’s identity
that she opts to lead a secret life in defiance of her parents’
plans, creating elaborate lies so she can play on a local
girl’s team and realize her talents. In the process, she also
develops a deep attraction for her Irish soccer coach ( a
surprisingly sensitive Rhys-Meyers) – not exactly the
boy her parents hoped she would bring home – and forms a close
friendship with her teammate Juliette (Knightly). She
doesn’t realize that her father (Kher) once had his
own sports dreams – he was also a talented footballer – and
was kept out of the English leagues because of rampant racism.
He doesn’t want to see her get hurt.
I found myself thoroughly absorbed by BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
whenever it showed its teenaged footballers at play. The
young women kick up their cleats (along with plenty of grass
and dirt), alternately coaxing the ball and crashing it into
the net. When they joyfully wipe the blood off their shins
like the true toughs they are, the movie and its subjects
are both energetically in their element. These lively scenes
are shot in ADD, a technique often reserved for violent scenes
in macho action flicks, and add a rough, satisfying dynamism
to every frame.
It is also a real pleasure to see a three-dimensional, credible
adolescent girl take up most of the movie’s screen time.
Parminder K. Nagra makes a lively, complex Jes. As the film
begins to pile up the familiar elements of any number of underdog
sports films and culture clash cliches, Nagra remains real
and fresh. Knightly is also convincingly fiery and frisky.
In fact, I can’t fault any of the adult actors either, all
of whom give warm, expressive performances that belie some
of the more banal aspects of the script, but the film, in
this sense, really does belong to the young women.
And who wouldn’t want to see these girls
find happiness? If I like these characters so much, why don’t
I want to cheer as they accomplish their dreams? And this
film was made by Gurinder Chahda (Bhaji on the Beach),
a female writer/director/producer! Shouldn’t I applaud her
empowerment from the stands? Highbrow reviewers! We are all
the same - never satisfied. We cast a cloud over every playing
field that threatens the game!
Maybe. But a story that wants to set its main character free
should feel more liberating itself. Bend it Like Beckham,
for all its desire to cut loose, also wants to marry its audience,
cook it a nice ethnic meal, and be most agreeable, even as
it supports a girl’s freedom to live her own life. After all,
the distributors need to think of their livelihood too, in
the form of ticket prices and the likely audience who will
agree to pay them. Monsoon Wedding? My Big Fat Greek
Wedding again, anyone? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc.
Aren’t these predictable vehicles becoming increasingly insulting
to minorities and women?
This movie rarely risks make audience members feel more than
a passing sense of discomfort, relying instead on the increasingly
suffocating clichés of other crowd pleasers – the clash of
old and young, old world and new world values, the presentation
of spectacular meals and easily identifiable ethnic celebrations
(here, a wedding) to tell its story. Juliette’s and Jes’ mothers
((Stevens and Khan) are rather cheap comic
foils, the one screeching because her daughter won’t follow
traditions, the other screeching because she fears her athletic
child is a lesbian. The soundtrack carefully balances contemporary
pop music, traditional Indian and Indian pop music, with a
touch of classical music - the regulation background noise
for crowd pleasers – sensitively cross-cultural and cross-generational,
and thus, inoffensive and “winning.”
If the movie wants its heroine to take some chances, it ought
to try taking a few more risks itself.
— Ellen Whittier