Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley
You don't need one whole hand to count the number of American movies that have centered on women's soccer -- a single cuticle will do just fine. The lone example that comes to mind is 1992's Ladybugs, a dismal comedy that found Rodney Dangerfield floundering as the coach of a junior girls' team.Of course, that debacle came long before female players like Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain took the nation by storm with their dramatic win over China in 1999. One would imagine that such a modern touchstone in American sports would have led some Hollywood entrepreneur to convince a studio to toss cash at a big-screen treatment; after all, even beach volleyball was accorded its own motion picture with the 1990 C. Thomas Howell dud Side Out.
No American filmmaker ever took the bait, but our mates on the other side of the pond have come through with a charming film that's been rocking the rest of the world. It's easy to see why: Though the British import Bend It Like Beckham centers on the members of an Indian family living in London, one of its central themes -- free-thinking children rebelling against their traditional parents -- has been attracting international audiences even long before James Dean dealt with teen angst in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause.
In Bend It Like Beckham, our rebel does have a cause. Jess Bhamra (newcomer Parminder Nagra) loves nothing so much as the game of soccer (or "football," as it's known everywhere else on the globe). Her room is a shrine to her favorite player, David Beckham, and she plays the game with the boys in the park every chance she gets. None of this sits well with her parents (Anupam Kher and Shaheen Khan), who would prefer she follow the direction of her older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi): Learn the ins and outs of preparing and cooking a traditional Indian dinner and then marry a nice, respectable Indian lad.
Jess isn't the least bit interested in spending her life making meals for a man, so when a spunky teenager named Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley, who looks like an uncanny cross between Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman) spots her playing in the park and suggests she join her on the local girls' team, Jess is elated. Her euphoria rises even further after she meets Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the soft-spoken young coach with whom she develops an instant rapport.
Yet Jess' newfound happiness meets a brick wall in the form of her parents, who eventually forbid her from playing soccer at all. With the occasional help of Jules and even her own sister Pinky, Jess constantly tries to put one past her folks (e.g., they think she's off working a summer job when she's really on the field practicing), though more times than not they end up catching her in her acts of deceit. And matters become even more tangled when Jess and Joe realize they might not be able to deny their mutual attraction any longer -- a real problem, since Jules also has a crush on the coach.
If it seems like the cinema of certain countries or regions makes its mark on the US in cycles (the wave of Australian titles in the late 70s, the influx of works from the Far East in the early 90s, etc.), then now seems to be the time for imports with an Indian bent. Monsoon Wedding and Lagaan: Once Upon a Time In India were two of last year's best releases, while the acclaimed Devdas was considered a likely nominee for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination (though it failed to make the final cut). In addition, the gargantuan Bollywood industry has belatedly been getting a substantial bit of ink in American magazines and newspapers.
Beckham is merely following in the footsteps of its proud antecedents. Like Monsoon Wedding, this film explores how long-held cultural traditions are maintained (or not) in a modern world, and like Lagaan, it examines the occasionally uneasy association between British and Indian societies. Jess' mom represents the first comparison -- she doesn't believe proper young ladies should be playing sports and wearing shorts that expose their bare legs. Her dad embodies the second -- his long-ago treatment by country club Brits who wouldn't allow him to play cricket has him fearful that his daughter will be treated in the same racist manner. It's a testament to the sensitivity of writer-director Gurinder Chadha and co-scripters Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges that while the parents are a source of much of the film's humor, their worries are treated with earnestness -- they may be unnecessarily strict with their youngest daughter, but they have their reasons. (By contrast, Jules' conflicts with her shallow mom, portrayed by Juliet Stevenson, are treated as sit-com fodder, with Mom mistakenly believing that her daughter and Jess are lesbian lovers.)
The soccer sequences are fun to check out, though they don't dominate the story. Yes, the "big game" (being watched by a scout from an American university, natch) will provide Jess with an opportunity to strut her stuff, but it's not the outcome of this match that will remain on the minds of moviegoers. More likely, they'll be thinking about the appeal of the young performers: Rhys Meyers, usually cast as creeps (Ride With the Devil, Titus), is atypically gentle; Knightley, only 16 when she made the film, is the perfect embodiment of teen exuberance; and Nagra, making her feature film debut, represents the essence of the film itself -- strong, sexy and oh-so-smart. "Feel-good" movies often get denigrated because they sometimes force audiences to leave their brains in the lobby in order to enjoy the merriment. Bend It Like Beckham doesn't share that problem: It's "feel-good" without being "feel-stupid."