A few years ago, a movie like this an Indian girl dreams of playing professional football despite her parents' insistence that she train to be a good wife would have been either too Asian or too British for most audiences. But now London's West End regularly makes space for Bollywood flicks, and British film has earned new respect at home and overseas. The way is clear for movies with mixed-race casts to explore issues other than culture clash and racism. Enter Bend It Like Beckham, a small film with a big heart that topped U.K. box offices when it opened last month a rare success for a movie with an Asian woman in the lead role.
For her third feature, director Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach, What's Cooking?) caters to the teen market with a young cast and plenty of energy. "I didn't want to make another art-house movie," she says. "I wanted it to be of wide appeal and play to all kinds of people of different backgrounds and ages, in as many cinemas as possible." And to make them feel good. From the opening dream sequence in which 18-year-old Jess (Parminder K. Nagra), wearing Manchester United colors, scores a goal to the roar of a crowd at the Old Trafford football ground, we know we're in a place where dreams come true.
While Jess tries to balance her passion for football with her obligation to her family, friend Jules (Keira Knightley) battles her mother over skirts and makeup. Jules wants to play football; her mother wants her to wear inflatable bras because "there's a reason Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella." The question here: Can a girl be athletic and still be feminine? On the way to finding an answer, the film takes good-natured jabs at the misunderstandings between kids and their parents. An innocent hug between Jess and Jules causes havoc twice first when friends of Jess's family mistake short-haired Jules for an English boy and again when Jules' mother imagines the hug to be a little too friendly. The ultimate message is that a woman is defined by who she is, not what she wears or how round her chapatis are. This focus on female strength means women will find more in the characters to relate to, but there is enough in the film to hold the attention of more testosterone-heavy viewers. Not least, the football.
Avoiding the static overhead shots fans would recognize from televised matches, the camera gets inside the game, weaving between players' legs, following the ball from boot to boot and creating action-packed game scenes that build up the excitement as if the theater were a stadium. Watching the matches is as much fun as playing them must have been. "I wanted the girls to look comfortable on the ball, so we put them into a 10-week intensive training program," Chadha says. "By the end of the film they were a tight team, so fierce they could have beaten a lot of men's sides in the U.K."
The acting is as nimble as the footwork. Newcomer Nagra is a real find, playing Jess as confident not cocky, smart yet accessible. She could someday join the ranks of Britain's best young actors if she steers clear of Token Asian Character roles. As her friend Jules, Knightley brings some of the best emotion to the screen when she feels betrayed by Jess' relationship with their football coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). If there is a weak link in the younger cast, it is Rhys Meyers, who is better known for bizarre roles like glam rocker Brian Slade in the 1998 cult fave Velvet Goldmine. The role of regular guy seems to take too much effort, and Joe's Irish accent sounds forced even though Rhys Meyers is from Dublin. The adult members of the cast are flawless, especially Bollywood star Anupam Kher as Jess' concerned but understanding father and British cinema staple Juliet Stevenson as Jules' impossibly cleavaged, super-girlie mother.
Some of the biggest laughs come at the expense of the parents, who find their views and attitudes at odds with those of their children. But the beauty is that the film is sympathetic toward everyone, young and old, claiming that there is always room for compromise. "It's the dance, the stepping this way and that way that goes on between generations," says Chadha. "How parents have had to move along with the times in order to help their kids realize their desires, even though they might not be the parents' desires." And the film shows how finding the right moves can be both painful and hilarious. As one of this year's brightest, funniest and most refreshing British films, Bend It Like Beckham definitely scores.