Bend it Like Beckham (UK, 2002) ***
Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Written by Ms. Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges. Photography, Jong Lin. Editing, Justin Krish. Music, Craig Pruess. Production design, Nick Ellis. Producers, Deepak Nayar, Ms. Chadha. Cast: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, et al. A Fox Searchlight release. 112 minutes. PG-13.
A huge success in Great Britain where its title needed no clarification. It does in the U.S.A. No matter how many strides soccer (aka "football" in other languages) has made in North America, there is no football fanaticism here as in many nations abroad, certainly including the U.K. There, players, coaches and managers are huge personalities, especially in major teams. David Beckham of Manchester United (who is married to one of the Spice Girls) is an adulated hero, on the level of (years ago) of Brazil's Pele or, arguably, Argentina's Diego Maradona.
The movie is an episodic, multi-level work. Its kernel is an 18-year old Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), a Sikh girl in greater London. Presumably she was born and grew up in the U.K. Her folks are conservative Sikhs who have a nice house in a good, pretty neighborhood (never mind that it is close to a major airport,) a shiny, late-model Mercedes, and multiple friends and relatives who, Jaguars and all, must be well-to-do. The home's interior is quite a sight, crammed as it is with furniture and stuff that has never heard of the Bauhas, Art Nouveau, Art Decom or just plain Swedish styles. Jess loves football with a passion -and she is very good at it. Her dream is to be a "somebody" in a girls' football team. It comes true, even though her mother, sweet but conservative, does not approve of Jess doing such an odd-ball thing, showing her legs in public, not preferring the usual dream of well-to-do minorities in England, that is, go to college then marry a nice Indian boy.
The girls' multi-racial team is coached by a very able, friendly and nice ("nice" is a keyword for this movie) young Irishman Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The variety and severity of the process is worthy of the Marines, but the tone is always pleasant, friendly and warm. Joe has faith in Jess, helps her in important ways (don't ask) so that the girl can show her mettle and-this being a success story-becomes the club's star.
Back to the title. It is a kind of encouragement to Jess, that is, to control the ball or bend it to her wishes, the way David Beckham does. And that's what happens. The training and the actual playing sequences in the movie are beautifully done, their photography and editing are tops.
Jess has made best-friends with fellow player Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley.) Yes, Jules is a girl. (Is this a salute to Truffaut's movie "Jules and Jim"?) Jules, who looks like Winona Ryder, has a dad who encourages her with football, and a sweet, rather air-headed mother who does not. She is played by Juliet Stevenson, who, for many of us, made her mark -in that wonderful movie "Truly Madly Deeply" (1991)
However, there are several sub-plots to the film. They take up time and space, sometimes dilute the main action of interest for some viewers, and overstretch the movie
At the same time, they leave me with unanswered questions. Example: what is the profession of Jess's nice, sensible and indubitably moneyed dad? Below his perennial turban he wears something like a paramilitary outfit with epaulettes. Could he be in the Police Force? If so, the job must pay very well. If so, this also speaks well for the integration of visible minorities in the U.K.
Or else, he once declares "when I was a boy in Nairobi" which is in Kenya, not India. The U.K. public should not be puzzled by this, but Americans might. The Brits knows (or ought to know) that Kenya includes a small percentage of Indians, or, for that matter, that South Africa was where Mahatma Ghandi was born.
Those may be picayune details. What's more graspable is that the Sikhs seem nicely integrated with those whom at least the older Indians call " the English"; that there are various degrees of integration; that the Sikhs cling nicely and colorfully to their own traditions. This is underlined when Jess's sister becomes engaged and married. The ceremonies are picturesque, charming and lively. It's a welcome education for the viewers. In addition, the naturalness in the rapport between younger Sikhs and younger "English," men or women are delicately and pleasantly sketched in.
Some of the sub-plots are less necessary. When Jess has to hide her football sessions from her parents, some of this is unconvincing. Her dad, is much more amenable than mom in this area. We do get one reason: long ago he had suffered from discrimination and been thrown out of cricket club. Now, his daughter's hoped-for triumph will be sweet revenge for him.
The main movie-movie subplot is that Joe and Jess get along famously, but then mutual attraction raises its head and messes things up, notably the friendship of Jess and Jules. But you know that matters will be sorted out. Yet before this happens, there's a bit of artificial padding as Jules's mom imagines that the two girls are --horrors! -- lesbians. (Don't ask). Also, while there are good parallels and contrasts between soccer and the Sikh wedding, earlier on, when the girls' team went to Hamburg and lost to a German team, we get forced and unnecessary personal details. Nonetheless, the overall movie has charm, is optimistic, warm, feel-good and watchable.