Bend It Like Beckham

March, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Gurinder Chadha

Starring:Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anupam Kher, Shaznay Lewis, and Archie Panjabi

It's very difficult to make a first-rate "feel good" movie; harder still to make one about adolescents in sports and hardest of all when ethnic differences and sexual preferences are thrown into the mix. But that's exactly what writer/director Gurinder Chadha does here, spinning a tale so good-natured and full of mischievous fun you can't help but smile about it long after you've left the theater.

Does it say something about the resurgence of women in the industry that the two best films of this still-young year are not only written by women, but directed by them as well? If Bend It lacks the sophisticated urbanity of Laurel Canyon, its generous portrayal of the Bamras, (a Sikh family in suburban London) nevertheless manages to make a number of trenchant observations about our common cultural prejudices even as it tickles the audience's collective funny bone.

Daughter Jesminder, ("just call me Jess") loves soccer with a teen-age passion telegraphed by every poster in her tiny bedroom. She plays pick-up games with her male counterparts in the local park, but has to hide this fact from her extremely traditional mother, who thinks the sport it not only unladylike, but immoral as well, since it exposes Jess's legs to male eyes. Mr. Bamra played cricket when the family lived in Uganda, but he's soured on anyone in the family trying to participate in team sports in "clubby" England, where a player's skin color and country of origin can still produce the kind of prejudiced reaction widespread in the U.S. until a couple of decades ago. But when Juliette, a young British player on a local girls team spots Jess playing in the park and encourages her to try out for the team, an elaborate process of subterfuge must be put in place to satisfy Jess' appetite for the game while appearing to heed her parents’ wishes.

Jess has an older sister desperate to marry a traditional, (i.e. well-off) young Indian man, and settle into the kind of conventional life her parents so ardently want for both their daughters. Her role in the film acts as a foil for younger sister's ambitions, but the director is careful to present that alternative with its considerable attractions, so the choices each make represent perfectly valid options for both.

Given the intentions of its conventional storyline, there will of course be an attractive male coach who appeals to both Jess and Juliette, triggering a bit of jealousy in the second reel, along with a running gag about the sexual preferences of these two apparent tomboys and the reaction of Juliette's mother, played in wonderfully bawdy strokes by the always dependable British actress Juliet Stevenson. She's convinced female athletes don't get the pick of the male population, a view held by Jess' mother for remarkably similar, if culturally disguised reasons. 

As might be expected, there's a crucial championship game,( complete with a scout in the stands) that forces Jess to confront her parents about her real interests in life, and splendid Indian nuptials reminiscent of last year's "Monsoon Wedding". It all gets sorted out at the end of course; parents learn to accept the choices their children make while earning their respect in the bargain, while the kids recognize the value of strong family ties.

Ms. Chadha handles her well-cast actors with far more intelligence and honesty than was found My Big Fat Greek Wedding, last year's tribute to ethnic charms; this is a considerably better film, not least because it manages to confront some of the uglier truths about our collective appetites for scorning and devaluing others simply because they're different. The director pokes holes in the pomposities of her characters, but does it with such affection the audience comes to accept and enjoy them, foibles included, as much as she obviously does. The result is a sunny look at how much fun we can have just being ourselves and respecting the differences in those around us. Not a bad perspective for any film, especially one as lighthearted and delightful as this one.

And don't leave before the credits roll; Chadha mixes outtakes from the film and some cast photos with a cleverly selected soundtrack as good as anything in the film itself. 

The verdict? This whole effort's been sprinkled with pixie dust.       


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