With preternatural good looks, a Spice Girl for a wife, and an uncanny ability to kick a soccer ball and make it land wherever he wants, David Beckham is one of the biggest stars of British sports. The soccer player was nice enough to lend his name to Bend It Like Beckham, a spirited, good-natured coming of age comedy that encompasses the immigrant experience, gender identity and family expectations with an engaging, natural ease.
The film follows Jesminder (Parminder K. Nagra), the child of Punjabi émigrés living in suburban London -- and one of Beckham's biggest fans. Posters of the footballer's exploits cover her walls, she wears his jersey when she plays soccer with the boys in the park, and she studies his moves during games on TV. But it's Jess's soccer skills that catch the eye of Juliette (Keira Knightley), who plays for a local women's soccer club. Jess finds herself recruited and suddenly realizes that soccer dreams of her own are not farfetched.
However, Jess's devout Sikh parents have their own ideas about how a young girl should behave. Jess is preparing for university, and unbecoming distractions such as soccer are not welcomed. When they discover Jess running around, exposing her legs in front of the team's coach Joe (JONATHAN RHYS-MEYERS) they forbid her from playing. And the preparations for her sister's wedding only underscore the liabilities of Jess's unladylike behavior. But the promise of an upcoming visit from an American soccer scout, and the potential to play professionally, keeps her sneaking back to the field for more game.
The key to Bend It Like Beckham's success is found in the way director Gurinder Chadha weaves together the conflicts between Indian and British cultures, exploring the joys and liabilities of both traditions and the way they shape their young women. Jess's open confrontations with her family stand in stark contrast with the repressed disapproval of Juliette's mother. Where Jess's parents put their foot down and demand that she give up soccer and learn to cook a proper Indian meal, Juliette's mom (a fantastic Juliet Stevenson) encourages her to trade her sports bra for an inflatable, cleavage enhancing one. Chadha links this contrast with lovely images, as when her camera hovers over a maelstrom of colorful wedding preparations in Jess's backyard while a solitary white English woman hangs her laundry next door.
But many of Beckham's lead performances are spotty at best. Knightley has real charm, and her athletic good looks are perfect for the part. But despite her charisma she chews up many of the scenes she appears in, contorting her face so there's no question about what she's thinking. Meyers burdens every line with a lazy, sarcastic delivery that undercuts any insight into his character. His scenes with Jess's father, excellently played by veteran actor Anupam Kher, ring particularly hollow. These lapses, and the overwrought, tacked-on happy ending, keep Beckham from scoring a hat trick.
But these problems aren't enough to sink Beckham. The film embraces its ensemble cast and diverse themes with amazing control, taking on the complexities of real life without getting weighed down by its many subplots. The soccer scenes tint the film with a bright energy while avoiding clichés of the "joy of victory, agony of defeat" variety. Bend It Like Beckham comes together with a warmth and soul that, like its namesake, looks good and scores with regularity.
The Bend It DVD features 10 deleted scenes, a commentary track from Chadha and the two other writers, and more -- including a video recipe for cooking Aloo Gobi at home.
Bend... and release.