I have a confession to make. I like many of my film-fan ilk am not a sports jock to any great degree. I’m more the weedy karate wannabe than the ace quarterback. Here in the UK, football (soccer) rules all. Where the US has baseball, football, hockey and such to divide each to their own, for us Brits it’s soccer or nothing. Admitting to not being interested in the great game is akin to daubing your door in goat’s blood in ancient times. So it with a heavy heart that I share with you the fact that I have only a real passing interest in that most international of sports.
Conversely for a sport so ingrained in British culture it is also one of the most institutionally sexist. Women don’t play soccer. End of. It is this clichéd and outdated attitude that Bend It Like Beckham tries to dispel with it’s enjoyable mix of suburban drama and light humour.
Jesminder (Nagra) is a high-school student in a strict Sikh family. Her older sister is on the verge of getting married and her parent’s only wish is for her to go to university to become a solicitor and marry a nice young Indian boy. She however has other ideas. While other girls her age are shopping and chasing guys and doing what 17 year old girls do, Jess is in the park playing soccer with the guys and idolising the England soccer team captain David Beckham.
One day while in the park she catches the eye of Jules Paxton (Knightley), a player for a local girl’s team, who believes Jess good enough to sign up. Knowing that her parents will never allow it, Jess begins to weave more and more lies in an attempt to fulfil her dream of becoming a professional player. She is caught out and caught out again and almost chained to the kitchen to learn how to be a “proper” Sikh woman, but again and again she manages to sneak out in her attempts to impress a US coach scouting in the UK.
What follows is a predictable array of cheeky but affectionate jibes at Sikh culture, romance as Jess falls for her clean-cut nice Irish lad coach (Rhys-Meyers) and angst as Jess and Jules fall out over their feelings for their coach.
All the while, where-as Jess is suffering from her parent’s narrow-minded views based on her religion, Jules is also suffering from her own parent’s narrow-mindedness. Her highly-strung mother has difficulty coming to terms with her daughter’s obsession with soccer leading her to falsely believe that her daughter may be more interested in girls than boys. It is these scenes that provide the few laugh-out-loud moments of the movie.
Most current US teen drama is currently over-wrought with Dawson’s Creek style pretentious vernacular and angsty-teenpop soundtracking. That’s not the British way, so it’s not the way teens are portrayed in BILB. When presented with an unfair situation, rather than launch into a debate on the existential conflict inherent in the nature-nurture axis, Knightley’s character sums things up with the refreshingly natural declaration of “That’s bollocks”. Also, as with all good British movies, it’s soundtrack tears strips off many of it’s contemporaries.
However, all is not perfect. There are some gaping potholes within the film - things that seem like they should go somewhere or be important but end up coming to nothing. A big deal is made of Jess having a burn scar on her legs but a quick minute long chat with the coach and the issue is never addressed again. The same with race issues, only once is the issue addressed, but a quick hug from our “understanding because he’s Irish” (?) wunder-coach and all is well again. These are things that don’t bother you while watching the movie but after you come away you find yourself thinking “Hang on a minute…”
Performances are all good from the leads. Both Nagra and star-in-the-making Knightley are also stunningly beautiful which means your eyes will never leave the screen even in the few duller moments. Chadha’s direction isn’t particularly stylish but she does keep the story moving, leaving few lulls and her knowledge and personal experience of Sikh culture shows, leaving her supporting cast teetering on the line between real eccentricities and caricature to provide humour.
Overall, Bend It Like Beckham is nothing groundbreakingly special, but nor is it your usual yawnsome American teen melodrama. It’s a nice little film that doesn’t try to be more than it is. You know where it’s coming from and you know where it’s going to end up, but it doesn’t feel like it’s short-changed you.
I’m still not interested in soccer though…