Bend It Like Beckham

U.S. movie poster

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.

Cast: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyer, Anupam Kher, Archie Panjabi, Shaznay Lewis, Frank Harper, Juliet Stevenson
Writers: Gurinder Chadha, Guljit Bindra, Paul Mayeda Berges
Music: Craig Pruess
Cinematographer: Jong Lin
Producers: Deepak Nayar, Gurinder Chadha
Director: Gurinder Chadha


Grade: C- Review by Dominic Varle

pretty much every year the ailing British film industry coughs up a feel-good movie of comfortable familiarity and pan-demographic appeal whose critical and commercial success is disproportionate to its modest production and ambition. Gurinda Chadha's slight comedy-drama Bend It Like Beckham, a worldwide hit in 2002 topping the charts in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, is the latest little British film that could.

Unlike the rest of the world, however, any US box office success will have to come in spite of, of its title, rather than because of it. "Bend what like who?" audiences might reasonably ask. For the uninitiated, it refers to world famous English soccer superstar David Beckham, and his uncanny ability to bend the flight of a ball and bend the 'rules' governing what a soccer player should be. Essentially, it's a film about Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), a Sikh girl from west London who idolizes the eponymous Beckham, whose 'bending' of both ball and societal rules she wants to emulate.) While her family prepares the traditional wedding of her elder sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), Jess is more interested in playing pick-up soccer with boys in the park. A chance encounter with Jules (Keira Knightley, The Phantom Menace)--a girl who shares both her passion for the game and a mother who despairs her daughter's non-conformity--leads to a successful trial for Jules' women's soccer team, where Jess soon becomes a star player.

Trying to play both semi-pro soccer and the role of dutiful daughter in her sister's wedding preparations is not easy, especially when her immigrant parents want her to go to university and become a lawyer. Absconding to Germany to play in a tournament is the final straw for her indulgent father (Anupam Kher), who forbids Jess from playing soccer again. Despite the remonstrations of her coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer), Jess is condemned to spend the rest of the summer at home learning how to cook the perfect Indian meal. UK key art with Nagra and KnightleyThis means she will miss The Big Match, a game that will be attended by an American scout, and which coincides (of course) with Pinky's wedding. Will Jess manage to overcome her family's prohibition and play the game? Will she score the winning goal and land a soccer scholarship in the USA with her pal Jules? Will the film end on a utopian note of cross-cultural harmony? I won't spoil it for you by revealing the answers here.

Is it curmudgeonly to dislike a film as ostensibly benign and well intentioned as Bend It Like Beckham? I don't believe so. Not if its made-for-TV feel and clichéd, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink storylines beg for it. This film is a coming-of-age, clash-of-cultures, female-buddy romantic triangle sports movie that also can't decide when to be a drama and when to be a comedy. The result is not many laughs, and not much drama. Co-writer/Director Gurinda Chadha tries to cover too many bases, adding superfluous plot contrivances (the romantic triangle, the gay best friend) rather than exploring Jess' dilemma in any meaningful way. In soccer terms, she shoots often, but rarely hits the target.

The 112 minutes it takes to tell Jess and Jules' story exacerbates these misses. The peripheral sub-plots, parental caricatures, and repeated misunderstandings that ensue are highly subject to the law of diminishing comedic and dramatic returns. Juliet Stevenson's role (as Jules' absurdly high-strung mother) could have been excised with no great loss to the film, or even her resume. Watching this Royal Shakespeare Company actor hysterically ham her way through a repetitive 'my daughter is a soccer-playing lesbian' riff grows very tired, very quickly.

At the (supposed) other end of the acting scale is debut-making All Saints' singer Shaznay Lewis, as Mel, the team captain. Her main speaking scene--in which she charmlessly wafts a tampon around during some locker room banter, telling us that "the painters and decorators are in"-- is a particularly gratuitous low point, better suited to the cutting-room floor. A dozen or more cuts along these lines, while not wholly redeeming the film, would have gone some way to making me believe that this non-comedy of errors was at least finite. Ninety minutes (the length of a soccer game) would have been just fine, thank you.

In the end, it takes two newcomers to raise Bend It Like Beckham above the mediocre. Both Nagra and Bollywood actor Kher generate a genuine rapport from an otherwise patchy script--helped no doubt by having the better-written parts. That writer/director Chadha based their relationship on her own life speaks volumes for the old rule of thumb that it's better to write about what you know. Even the well-choreographed soccer (and well captured, by Jong Lin) is bettered for action by the exuberant fun of the Sikh wedding scenes. If Bend It Like Beckham had stuck to what it was good at, it might have found itself in the same league as Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, or The Full Monty, but instead is strictly second division fare.

Review © February 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Fox Searchlight Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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