Liberated, Westernized daughters versus their traditional, ethnic mothers -- it's the trendiest genre in crowd-pleasing independent cinema. Pick an ethnic minority, embrace its clichés and use them for punchlines, then pit your female heroine (attractive, not gorgeous, with a realistic body type) in a position where she's torn between family and future.
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" milked the formula for $250 million. "Real Women Have Curves" was a modest hit, combining body-image themes with a story about a second-generation Los Angeles Latina who wanted to go to college instead of working in her sister's dress factory -- much to the chagrin of her old-fashioned mother.
Now comes the English import "Bend It Like Beckham," in which the soccer-fanatic daughter of Sikh immigrants pursues her sporty dreams behind the backs of her disapproving parents and -- to quote from the stock-language press kit -- "has to choose between tradition and following her heart."
Yet despite their feel-good predictability -- and probably because of their filmmakers' adoration of and appreciation for the cultures they portray -- these perfunctory pictures have a tendency to be totally entertaining, even if they are formulaic.
"Bend It" is an energetic romp in which talented teenage footballer heroine Jess Bhamra (Parminder K. Nagra) -- who idolizes Manchester United star David Beckham -- is recruited for an amateur female soccer league and soon has aroused the interest of scouts from America's pro women's soccer league.
Between the time Jess starts sneaking out to practice (dressing in street clothes but hiding her gym bag in the bushes in front of her parents' house) and the time The Big Game coincides with her sister's wedding (oh, what will she do?) there are many trifling but engaging plot developments.
Conservative, sari-wearing, melodramatic Mom bellows "You shouldn't be running around on a field with all these men, baring your legs!" Quiet, more sympathetic, turban-wearing Dad slowly comes around to aiding and abetting after seeing Jess play. Misunderstandings lead to family crises when the judgmental, old-country parents of Jess's future brother-in-law call off the wedding over what they perceive as Jess's inappropriate behavior.
Meanwhile, Jess's best friend (blonde, slender, adorable but credibly sporty Keira Knightley) has problems of her own -- namely a histrionic mother (Juliette Stevenson in a hilarious, cleavage-conscious, suburban-trash performance) who thinks soccer is turning her beautiful daughter into a lesbian. "Honey," Stevenson lectures, "all that I'm saying is, there's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella!"
While they bond over the universal ailment of embarrassing mothers, the girls also have a catty falling out over -- what else? -- their mutual crushes on their sexy young coach with bedroom eyes and pouty lips (JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS).
The attraction between Rhys-Meyers and Nagra is contrived and unconvincing, and the film has other problems too -- most notably, the zippy soccer game scenes are all fancy-footwork and rock-music montage sequences which inadvertently trumpet the implication that these actresses can't really play.
But Nagra and Knightly are irresistibly charming, and writer-director Gurinder Chadha ("What's Cooking?") knows how to rally an audience behind them with endearing comedy and an earnest message of feminine empowerment.
Run time: 112 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st August 2003
Box Office USA: $32.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $76.6M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Kintop Pictures, Filmförderung Hamburg, UK Film Council
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 128 Rotten: 22
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Starring: Parminder Nagra as Jesminder 'Jess' Kaur Bhamra, Keira Knightley as Juliette 'Jules' Paxton, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Joe, Anupam Kher as Mr. Bhamra, Shaheen Khan as Mrs. Bhamra, Frank Harper as Alan Paxton, Juliet Stevenson as Paula Paxton, Ameet Chana as Tony, Archie Panjabi as Pinky Bhamra, Pooja Shah as Meena, Preeya Kalidas as Monica, Ace Bhatti as Nairobi Grandson
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