Is this oddly titled import worth your time? Only if you’re interested in seeing the most unapologetically feel good English produced coming of age ethnic sports comedy ever made.
An irresistible Punjabi feast of a film, “Bend It Like Beckham” stars Parminder Nagra as a London teenager struggling to bring her self and her future into focus while navigating the parallel worlds occupied by hip young friends and firmly traditional Indian parents. Her older sister’s wedding just days away, the young woman finds herself on the family sidelines sharing her innermost thoughts with the poster on her bedroom wall of British soccer superstar and personal god David Beckham.
Most of these thoughts revolve around her passion for the sport, her stunning aptitude for it and the wish that her talent might be put to better use than kicking circles around local boys at pick up games in the park. Two impassable realities stand between Nagra and fulfillment of her dreams, however. First, the school she attends doesn’t offer a program for girls. And, second, her mother and father are old fashioned Sikhs who believe a woman’s place is in the home, not on the home team.
And then one afternoon another wunderkind jogs into her life bringing good tidings from the other side of town. Keira Knightly (who appears to be the product of a highly successful attempt to crossbreed Winona Ryder with Cameron Diaz) costars as a student at a slightly more upscale school which boasts not only a first rate women’s soccer program but a sensitive, twinkle-eyed Irishman (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) as its coach.
Knightly recognizes her new friend’s physical genius and brings her along for a try out even though doing so may very well jeopardize both her own standing as the team’s star player and her special relationship with Rhys-Meyers. The two aren’t quite an item-that would violate school rules-but it’s evident each has a simmering crush on the other. That’s one of the things that make this film such a disorientingly joyful experience. The people who populate it are likable and well-intentioned. Hollywood filmmakers operating on the principle that every picture needs a bad guy should take note.
Director and co writer Gurinder (“What’s Cooking?”) Chadha juggles the conventions of multiple genres expertly, gives each a new spin and, in the process, produces a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. Nagra is a screen presence with whom it’s easy to empathize. She’s sweet, smart, funny and hell on a football field. Ten minutes in she’ll have you under her spell, hoping her parents won’t discover she’s playing behind their backs and rooting for her to get her shot at the big time.
As an ethnic comedy, “Bend It Like Beckham” is everything My Big Fat Greek Wedding wasn’t (talk about professional dedication: I watched the runaway Nia Vardalos hit this weekend just so I could make the comparison.) There’s nothing sitcom-ready here, no rimshot observations or stereotype-driven jokes. The portrait of traditional Indian life Chadha provides manages to mine laughs from characters without resorting to making them laughable.
Even the whole will-she-or-won’t-she-make-it-to-the-big-game (which, as fate would have it, an American scout will attend and which winds up falling on the same day as the wedding) device is handled with such wit and warmth you notice yourself ever nearer the edge of your seat despite the fact you couldn’t be clearer about the outcome if you were sitting there with a script.
It’s easy to understand why the picture has become a phenomenon in Britain and difficult to fathom why Fox has dragged its feet getting it into wide release in the states. Perhaps the powers that be foolishly worry American audiences won’t know what to make of a teen film which doesn’t play by the rules. When, of course, its considerable charm arises precisely from the way it doesn’t merely bend but breaks them.