Bend It Like Beckham

on March 12, 2003 by Wade Major
Cryptic though it may be to many Americans, a movie title like "Bend it Like Beckham" is as good as gold in the UK. A rough American facsimile might be something on the order of "Dunk it Like Shaq." But cultural unfamiliarity with things pertaining to English soccer should in no way dissuade American moviegoers from treating themselves to what is arguably one of the best sports films in years as well as one of the year's most refreshing surprises--an exhilarating tale of individual triumph that skillfully blends comedy, romance, drama and pointed social commentary.

The focus of "Bend it Like Beckham" isn't the famed English soccer star of its title, nor his legendary ability to "bend" a kicked ball, but rather a pair of 18-year-old soccer-playing girls--one English, the other English-Indian--who bond over the inability of their respective families to appreciate their passion for the sport, only to later discover that they are both falling for their coach. While Jess (Parminder Nagra) struggles with her immigrant parents' expectations that she be a properly obedient, modest and non-athletic Indian girl, her friend Jules (Keira Knightley) strives to counter her mother's fears that her love for soccer is but the first indication of latent lesbianism. But their coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), sees them not only for who they are but for who they want to be, a confidence that inevitably invites deeper feeling from them both.

Though it might appear that "Bend it Like Beckham" is falling back on a time-tested melodramatic love triangle cliché, the narrative texture is actually far richer than it appears. Though the Indian portions of the story echo many of the same issues already voiced in movies like "East is East," "American Chai," "ABCD" and the Venice Film Festival-winning "Monsoon Wedding," there is something in the athletic quest that gives "Bend it Like Beckham" the feel of a female "Rocky," an oft-abused comparison which nonetheless has relevance here.

Indeed, nothing speaks more to the triumph of writer/director Gurinder Chadha's film than the fact that one need not be English, Indian, female or even a soccer fan to appreciate its messages. Anyone who has ever battled conventional wisdom and struggled in the face of adversity to fulfill their dreams will find solace and validation here, in a rare picture that endeavors to commune with the human spirit rather than exploit it. Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Anupam Kher, Archie Panjabi, Shaznay Lewis, Frank Harper and Juliet Stevenson. Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Written by Gurinder Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges. Produced by Deepak Nayar & Gurinder Chadha. A Fox Searchlight release. Romantic Drama. Rated PG-13 for language and sexual content. Running time: 112 min

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