Luckily, Bend It Like Beckham has as little to do with soccer as that "Hogan’s Heroes" mishmash, the Sylvester Stallone/International All-Stars Victory/Escape to Victory, is about the sport or war. An exported British invention, short for "association football" and called simply "football" in other countries of the world, soccer raises passions unimaginable to this northern side of the ocean, for it is all their major sports combined, often the only one available. George Orwell once described it as "group hatreds . . . [and] war minus the shooting."
But, again, director-cowriter Gurinder Chadha’s new film only tangentially concerns soccer, and sports is for once not a clichéd metaphor for life itself. The director is admittedly not a football fan, nor are her actors so much as amateur footballers. The film’s success in Commonwealth countries and at home as the highest domestic take ever for a British financed and distributed film may be a result of its tenuous relationship to the national sport. Or perhaps its popularity comes from the distant bait of titular David Beckham, beleaguered Britain’s close-cropped, double-earringed answer to foreign stars Ronaldo, Figo and Zidane (and husband to Spice Girl Victoria).
What exactly, then, is Bend It Like Beckham? It’s the story of the younger of two daughters of immigrants from India, now successfully middle-classed in London and planning university and legal or medical careers for their children and, at the very least, traditional old country weddings to bearded Sikhs. (In perfect symmetry, we see that white English mothers would also impose their old-fashioned values of men and marriage.)
While promiscuous (i.e., "modern"), hypocritical older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) is also all about hooking a mate and making Indian food and babies, high schooler Jesminda, "Jess" (Parminder Nagra), decorates her room with football-hero posters and, hidden in the park, outplays the local lads. Spied by athletically fit Jules (Keira Knightley), Jess is persuaded to join the Hounslow Harriers girls’ team, where she and Jules are stars and respectfully in love with young Irish coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an injured ex-footballer.
As the Harriers bond, the team gels and improves, even in a loss in Germany, but personal problems threaten. Jess has to lie to her parents (Anupan Khar and Shaheen Khan), who would oppose such untraditional, undignified activities. Jules’s mother (Juliet Stevenson) suspects a lesbian relationship; and though kissing Coach is out of bounds, tension arises between the two stars, as a scout is about to come from the United States, where, unlike Britain, women reportedly have a future in athletics.
These are the obstacles placed in the path, and, since anyone over five should have no difficulty figuring how all will end, the question becomes one of the route taken to get there. This is comedy, and what will be laughed into sanity are mere foibles, not irreversible sins. But here the road is that of least resistance, that much traveled standby of countless unthinking family-friendly films. Beckham’s older generation is misguided and must be inspired and taught by their open, honest and reasonable offspring. Not only son-in-law-hungry mothers, but fathers and sons, as well, will learn, for Jess’ father must leave behind the racial discrimination that drove him from cricket, and Coach Joe needs to re-approach the relentless father who drove him to a career-ending injury. Scars, physical as well as emotional, stand for barriers that would tie us to the past and thus limit the future.
Too easily and predictable, parents learn and all turns out for better than the best, as the two girls head for sunny Southern California on athletic scholarships, and the carrot is dangled of a matured Joe’s waiting and of a professional women’s league in the U.K. But one cannot eat one’s carrot cake and have it, too, for the film merely celebrates good vibes while clumsily sidestepping gender and racial issues it has falsely raised, as, for example, the position of black, presumably West Indian Harriers teammates.
Friendly cricket on a green will not serve, nor photos of smiling college players in Santa Clara, nor sari-clad matrons (the director’s relatives) laughing and clowning during closing credits. My Beautiful Launderette and Mississippi Masala have successfully given seriocomic treatment to similar themes, but here, beyond refreshing fresh faces and nice color work, there is little but surface, only another perky girl-movie. The English accents are unintelligible enough that your mother or young daughter will not catch the profanity, so they may well enjoy this film. Sons will not care to go, nor should anyone grown-up beyond PG fare.
(Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "PG-13" for language and sexual content.)
Review also posted at www.blujaiarts.com.