BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM is an unpretentiously charming comedy about the family ties that bind, sometimes too tightly. It did major box-office in England, where it was produced, and has done more than respectable business everywhere in the world that it’s played. It’s about time it made it to our shores here in the states. What sets this film apart from the legions of others that detail the troubles with cultural gaps is the underlying but palpable affection with which director and co-writer Gurinda Chadha invests her characters. These are people who genuinely love one another even as they drive each other crazy.
The Beckham of the title is David Beckham, the idol of millions of soccer fans in Britain and beyond. The problem is one of those fans, a devotee named jess, short for Jesminder, an Anglo-Indian girl who, to the consternation of her tightly knit Sikh family and disapproval of the equally tightly knit Sikh community at large in Houndslow, would rather play soccer than make samosas. When not playing soccer, shes communing with the poster of Becks that hangs over her bed, pondering how to walk the line between dutiful daughter and star footballer, as its called in England. For balance, and to make a salient point about the universality of generation gaps and the minefield that is the mother-daughter relationship, theres Jess teammate, Jules (Keira Knightley), short for Juliette, a lanky power player who has posters of Mia Hamm on her wall. She, too, is having problems living up to her mothers expectations of what a proper woman should be brushing aside as she does the frou-frou of fashion for track suits and a dream of playing professional soccer in the United States. When an American soccer scout takes an interest in seeing the girls play just when Jess family put their collective foot down about her soccer fixation, the stage is set for subterfuge, misunderstandings, and a romance with moody cutie Johnathan Rhys-Meyers that knocks everyone for a loop.
Chadha does not make the mistake of making villains of Jess traditional family. Rather, she gives us a father who wants to spare his daughter the same disappointments he himself faced as an up-and-coming cricket player shut out because of his race, and a mother who prays fervently and loudly to the family shrine about wanting Jess to be happy, as in married like her sister soon will be. Chadha also has Jess coach, in a wistful moment, wish that his family cared about him as much as Jess does about her. But then he asks the central question, the one about how soon it will be before Jess whole-hearted willingness to please her family turns into resentment.
With careful writing we can not only understand Jess dilemma intellectually, but also at a gut level. The best moment of the film may be when Jess father, played with warm dignity by Anupam Kher, finally sees her play. He beams with uncomfortable pride as a lifetime of unquestioned beliefs about the status quo start crashing down. Chadha also has deft hand with the sort of comedy that rises naturally from the situations, as when Jess is consigned to the kitchen to learn how to prepare a proper Punjabi meal and she dribbles a cabbage while her mothers back is turned. Chadha doesnt ignore racism or sexism in the script. They rear their ugly heads and leave their marks without becoming the point of the story. Instead, there is Jules mother (Juliet Stevenson), who is the embodiment of well-meaning cluelessness and who, in her own way, has a bigger leap of cultural conditioning to make than Jess family. Chadhas best move, though, is casting Parminder K. Nagra as Jess. She is simply terrific with a face that shows all too keenly the tug she feels from both worlds, as well as the unalloyed joy she takes in kicking serious soccer butt on the playing field. She grabs us from her first scene and never lets us down as she runs the gamut from tearful to jubilant with plenty of stunned besmusement in between.
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM is a little gem of film that will leave you with a smile and one or two of the curried pop songs that bounce throughout. Its also that rare film that you can bring your parents or kids or siblings to with no awkward moments.