Movie review by Greg Carlson
As a teenage coming-of-age comedy, “Bend It Like Beckham” is sturdy and reliable, with a conclusion so foreseeable you will likely telegraph it from the opening scenes. Tried and true tropes are firmly in place: a wedding, a love triangle, a passion for something your parents just don’t understand, and a handful of white lies and misunderstandings to keep things chugging along. Despite the movie’s formulaic familiarity, however, director Gurinder Chadha (“ Bhaji on the Beach,” “What’s Cooking?”) has heart to spare, as well as a terrific way with the young actors in her charge.
Jesminder (Parminder Nagra, top-notch all the way) – Jess, for short – loves to play football (soccer, to Yanks), despite the pressure for her to focus on the traditions her Indian family holds dear. Older sis Pinky (Archie Panjabi) is set to be married, and mama Bhamra (Shaheen Khan) insists that Jess learn to cook a traditional meal, find a nice boy, and follow her older sibling to the altar. Jess, however, has little time to think about aloo gobi and potential suitors. She wants only one thing: to bend it like Beckham, that is, put a soccer ball in the net with all the skill of Great Britain’s most famous athlete.
David Beckham, who makes only a fleeting appearance in the movie, is to Brits now what Michael Jordan was to basketball fans in the prime of his career: a superb player with enough natural talent to match his many commercial endorsements. Because Americans in general are not exactly recognized for a wild passion for soccer, Becks is known to some folks over here simply as the husband of Posh Spice. England, however, is a different matter. Like thousands of other young kids, Jess decorates her bedroom as a sort of shrine to Beckham, much to the consternation of her parents, who refer to the footballer as “that bald man.”
Jess is spotted in the park one day by Jules (Keira Knightley), another football-mad young woman who plays for a local club called the Hounslow Harriers. Impressed with Jess’ footwork, Jules recruits her to play on the team. Coached by a handsome Irishman named Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, more likable than he has ever appeared on-screen), the Harriers welcome Jess to their fold, and quickly began to win plenty of games. All the while, Jess keeps her newfound glory hidden from her protective family. You can bet that her deceit will catch up with her sooner rather than later, but getting there is half the fun.
Both Nagra and Knightley manage to exuberantly and convincingly convey a fervent keenness for football, and director Chadha realizes some of her most visually accomplished work during the scenes in which soccer is being competitively played. The supporting cast is also excellent – particularly Rhys-Meyers and Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher, who appears as the stern but patient father of Jess. Chadha also makes time for activities off the playing field, and the staging of Pinky’s nuptials is a delight to both eye and ear, rivaling “Monsoon Wedding” in its colorful energy.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/26/03.