Spunky and easy to watch, this feel-good movie bridges the distance between old country and new with the deft touch of a David Beckham [British soccer star] penalty kick. For any girl whose athletic endeavors were ever questioned by conservative parents, “Bend it Like Beckham” is a color-drenched fairy tale where you know from the opening credits that the story will end in the “happily ever after” category for our plucky heroine. Yes, this sunny little movie is about second generation Indian families in England striving to maintain traditions that kids, more British than Indian, find increasingly irrelevant. However, no matter what your cultural background, the central theme that you should follow your bliss no matter what the hurdle is universal.
For those who like such comparisons, you might think “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” meets “Footloose” with soccer instead of dancing. Jess (Parminder K. Nagra), doe-eyed and almost unbelievably well balanced, is a young Sikh woman awaiting her A-level [college entry exams] results in the suburbs of London, near Heathrow Airport. She is the obedient daughter of her tradition minded parents who have mapped her life’s flight path from law degree to Indian husband to perfecting her ability to cook ‘aloo gobi’. They have also allowed her to develop her natural soccer playing talents by turning a blind eye to her practices in the park with her best friend, Tony (Ameet Chana).
Jess’ life is about to change as her older sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), launches the family into a tizzy of wedding preparations for her on-again, off-again nuptials. Since Pinky is soon to leave the house, it is time, think their parents, that Jess settle down, give up soccer for studies and find a serious Indian boyfriend. Just as her parents are telling Jess to curb her sports pursuits, she is offered the opportunity to take her playing to the next level. Jess is spotted playing in the park by Jules (Keira Knightley) a kindred spirit who is a founding member of the all-women’s soccer club, the Hounslow Harriers. The Harriers, independent young women completely dedicated to their sport, represent everything that Jess would like to be in the world beyond the loving community of her family. What follows are the first rebellious steps into adulthood for the otherwise model teen, Jess, as she gains confidence and independence on the field, while discretely stepping out of her parent’s protective boundaries.
Some of the characters are two-dimensional and border on archetypes if not stereotypes, including Jules’ super-feminine English mum (Juliet Stevenson) who frets about her daughter’s tomboy “sportiness” and Jess’ mum (Shaheen Khan) who is more concerned about Jess’ cooking abilities than her happiness, however, they are both played with a light, comic touch. For cameo fans, Jess’ father is Bollywood superstar Anupam Kher and the Captain of the Hounslow Harriers is Shaznay Lewis, the lead singer for the Brit pop group, All-Saints.
While the story might not seem strikingly original, the color-drenched tones of the movie, the over-lit action scenes and the genuine appeal of the characters, especially Jess, make this film a welcome repast, engaging and entertaining from the first moment to the last. Even if the answers seem a bit pat, it is nice to think that complicated relationships and challenges can be resolved with the proper communications and the ability to make nice, round chappatis.
Parents should know that there is an implied sexual situation between a couple committed to marrying each other. Jess makes it clear that she will not sleep with a man until she is in a serious relationship, however some of her acquaintances refer in passing to their own more casual dalliances. A friend comes out to Jess in a very delicate way, while there is a parental misunderstanding about another character’s sexual orientation.
Several of the under 21-year-old characters do have a beer or a glass of wine, however they drink responsibly and are of legal age in the UK/Germany, where the scenes take place.
Parents should know that Jess hides her soccer playing from her family and lies to protect her secret. While she eventually learns that lying to her family about something so important to her is something she cannot do, for most of the movie she deliberately goes against her parents’ will and rebels against their decisions.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Jess feels she cannot talk to her family about her love of sports and how she defends her subterfuge. When discussing with Joe why her parents do not want her to play soccer, Jess says that it takes her away from everything they know. What finally makes Jess realize that she must talk to her parents about the matter? How does her father’s cricket experience impact his view of Jess’ soccer playing? What might be the common bond between Irish Joe and Indian Jess?
Families who enjoy this movie might like to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002), which shares a similarly ebullient approach to cultural differences. For those who enjoyed the South Asian elements of this movie, “Monsoon Wedding” (2002) is a lovely tableau of an Indian family preparing for a celebration (mature material). For those interested in the soccer theme, “The Cup” is a lighthearted look at a Buddhist monastery where the young novices are intent on watching the World Cup. Families who enjoyed the first-love element of this film might wish to see the Scottish coming-of-age gem, “Gregory’s Girl” (1981), or the Australian first-crush and cultural clash flick “Flirting” (1990).