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Bend It Like Beckham (PG-13)
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Official Site
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Producers:  Gurinder Chadha and Deepak Nayar
Written by:  Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges, Guljit Bindra
Cast:  Parminder K. Nagra, Keira Knightley, Anumpam Kehr, Shaheen Kahn, Juliet Stevenson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers

Rating: out of 5


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 warn you.

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

 

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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