Film Review Archive

 

Bend it like Beckham
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Bend it Like Beckham is directed by Gurinder Chadha and dedicated to her father. Sure enough, it's yet another South Asian movie where Mom is the difficult one and Dad is ultimately the daughter's hero. This movies lays that one on thick: it's the moms of the two aspiring soccer players-protagonist Jess (Parminder Nagra) and team mate buddy Jules (Keira Knightley)-who are the major obstacles: obsessed with their daughters' femininity and marriageability, they rail against the sport while, on some level, the dads secretly or explicitly nourish their daughters' ambition.

Jess is a dutiful daughter of Sikh parents living in London. It's not quite clear how old she is-maybe a young 16?-and she's far more interested in and adept at soccer than anything else. Her parents disapprove. One day, while surreptitiously playing in the park with the boys, she attracts the attention of Jules, who recruits her to play for a girl's soccer team, coached by a handsome Irishman named Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who's relegated to coaching girl's soccer after suffering an injury that ruined his knee. A series of triumphs and setbacks follows: childhood wounds are revealed and overcome, parental disapproval and heartbreak surfaces, first love and first disappointment happen, and of course there are victories and failures in the game.

The story packs too much in, trying to be a manifesto for women's sports, a bildungsroman, an "ethnic" portrait and a multicultural and p.c. morality tale. If the actors, music, and sheer exuberance of the film weren't so compelling, the story would seem overly predictable, hopelessly stereotypical, and messily told.
But-the actors are wonderful, especially Nagra, who is energetic, beautiful, tomboyish and womanly all at once. When she's playing soccer, we believe it. The music is fabulously eclectic-I ran out and got the soundtrack-and the humor is well-paced, believable, and truly funny. Jules' mother is an especially entertaining character, providing the best comic relief of the film, but in a way that's warm-hearted and surprisingly sympathetic. But most of all, the camera loves to watch the girls play, and there is joy, energy, and exuberance in the way the movie celebrates them-not as sex objects, nor as professional athletes, but as girls reveling in the power and pleasure of their bodies. If for no other reason, this makes Bend it Like Beckham a movie to see.

Two things troubled me about the film however; the first, predictably enough, is the way South Asians assume the role of the singing, dancing, eating, dark people comically mired in tradition-how the industry sells ethnic movies to the public. The second was the pseudo-lesbian subplot. The movie knows that when you put two adolescent girls, one white, one brown, together with sports, you've got lesbianism lurking in the background. So the movie makes it a theme, a case of mistaken identity, a source of moviegoers' "will they or won't they?," while playing it safe. Maybe that's a good thing to do-it foils our expectations-but it also struck me as a little dishonest, given the exaggerated over-emphasis on the comic yet, the movie suggests, ultimately boring married heterosexual future for all women.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.