Bend It Like Beckham is a charming, funky movie in the Billy Elliot mold about a young Hindi woman who lives with her family in London’s Southhall District and dreams of playing professional soccer. Above her bed is a picture of David Beckham, the English soccer hero. When not kicking a ball around the park with friends, Jesminder (played by Parminder Nagra) consults the picture, asking advice, confiding secrets. The Beckham photo serves the same purpose for Jess that the portrait of the god on the mantle has for her more traditional parents: it’s her shrine.
This movie is about generation gaps, culture clashes, and mothers and daughters. Although there is some football play, the real fun and suspense of the movie comes less from Jesminder’s sporting triumphs than from her spirited negotiation of sexual and cultural divides. As her older sister’s nuptials approach, her parents expect Jess to relinquish her passion for soccer for the more traditional women’s work of arranged marriages, elaborate meal preparations, and unquestioning devotion to elders. Fine enough to play sports with boys when you’re a little girl, their reasoning goes, but when you’re looking for a husband, you give up the short sleeves and pants of soccer uniforms for the sari and the blush of modesty. So the rebellious Jess hides her football cletes in the shrubs by the front gate and sneaks out to pursue her true calling of bruised knees and penalty kicks. "Anyone can make aloo gobi," she says to a friend. "But no one can bend the ball like Beckham."
Bend It Like Beckham offers few surprises on the level of story. But it is clear-headed enough to observe that life is difficult for adolescent girls regardless of class, caste, or ethnicity, while also being cool enough to celebrate marks of cultural difference. Knee-jerk propriety, regardless whether Indian or English, is mocked, but the director, Gurinder Chadha, pays equally loving attention to the vicissitudes of both Hindi wedding preparations and English breakfast rituals.
I understand that the film, which Chadha also wrote, is semi-autobiographical, and this must partly account for its knowing feel. Beckham is a neighborhood movie, relaxed and refreshing, and it is completely inhabited with terrific performances. It’s the perfect film with which to begin your summer; be sure to catch it before The Matrix arrives and small movies go into hibernation.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current movies, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.