Bend It Like Beckham

By David Mumpower

July 13, 2003

If you're going to perform open heart surgery, shouldn't I at least remove my jacket?

Bend It Like Beckham is adorable. I suppose I should instead describe it as vibrant storytelling that celebrates the childhood passion for those wondrous competitions from our youth that allowed for communal bonding on a grand scale. I should also probably say that the movie is an effusive love letter to the sport of football and the moxie of young women bravely waging a silent war in an oppressive society that expects them to bend to the will of their elders by behaving like dignified young women. But I find all that disingenuous. Bend It Like Beckham is adorable.

Director Gurinder Chadha imbues her production with a vitality and sense of spirit rarely seen in recent cinema. Rather than try to expand her story to a needlessly broad scope, the bane of most poorly helmed movies, she sagely focuses this tale of football and family around a single magnificent character, Jesminder Bhamra.

Parminder Nagra was 26-years-old when she filmed the movie. I point this fact out because her portrayal of a teen girl is so dazzling that the mind spins on the fact that she is a decade beyond the age she plays so believably. Her character, Jesminder, is a naturally gifted football (soccer to our American readers) player who has never been part of an organized league. When the opportunity is given to her by new comrade Juliette Paxton (Keira Knightley) to play for the Hounslow Harriers, a local team for girls, she jumps at it. She is unexpectedly able to live out a dream.

She is not able to share her joy with her parents, though. Even if they weren't busy planning a wedding for older sister Pinky, they would still disapprove of her behavior. To her mother, sports are not the way to attract a wealthy husband and what else is there in life but that? To her father, they are the way to experience the humiliation of prejudice; sadly, the only person she can share her newfound happiness with is her poster of British football star David Beckham. He is the man who can bend the ball to his will, breaking off curves which would make any baseball pitcher envious. That's why she hero-worships him and wants to become like him when she plays but since she is untrained, she can't bend the ball at all yet.

Here to change all that is Joe, the coach whose own career was ended when he tore up his knee in a game while trying to prove to his father he wasn't soft. When it comes to running the team, Joe is all business but that's not to say he's heartless. The entire reason the team exists is because Juliette was always complaining to Joe that there wasn't anywhere for girls in the area to compete against one another, so he stepped in to create one. Also, when Jesminder reveals her secret about why she can't wear shorts, Joe proves to be surprisingly tender and understanding about her situation. And it isn't lost on either her or Juliette that Joe is very easy on the eye.

What follows is a struggle for a girl well on her to becoming a woman to find her voice in a society which has a tendency to shout down its women. She is torn as she possesses a deep and abiding love for her family and has no desire to hurt them, but she also loves to play football; it's the only time she feels liberated. It's not just a problem for her either. Juliette's mom, Paula, is equally nonplussed about her daughter's decision to play sports, and she's more than a little bit afraid that Juliette might enjoy being in the girl's locker room a little too much as well. While father Alan supports Juliette, she still faces the same gender bias that all young women struggle against. For whatever reason, competitive sports are dismissed as masculine and any woman choosing to play them must fight the tomboy stereotype that she might be a lesbian-in-training.

Where Bend It Like Beckham succeeds the most is in demonstrating the inherent bravery of young women across the world exactly like Jesminder and Juliette. Their courage in defying the conventional wisdom of their elders and embracing the passion they feel for football is the kind of everyday heroism that isn't represented enough in modern film. For some reason, an assumption has been made that if the world doesn't hang in the balance, a movie isn't worthwhile. Films like Beckham aptly demonstrate that with a population of six billion, many of us have a story to tell that others would enjoy. We all have a few shining moments where we exemplify the human condition the way that Jesminder and Juliette do when they compete in their first tournament in Germany. Would that more directors showed this sort of control in choosing the scope of their stories.

At its heart, though, Beckham lives or dies with the Jesminder character. She is on screen for virtually the entire film so if she is dislikable, the whole exercise would be pointless. Thankfully, she's a treasure, a role model for all teen girls across the world. She manages to embrace the diversity of her culture while somehow balancing the demands of her parents yet still respecting the natural gifts within her. There are no shortcuts taken with the character to give her quick and easy redemption yet she remains above reproach. She succeeds in being a respectable and virtuous teenage girl who never embarrasses herself nor her family, and that's a virtually impossible task to accomplish in a film that never lacks for conflict.

Bend It Like Beckham has no delusions of grandeur yet it's ironically this very same direct approach of simple but powerful storytelling which sets it apart. The movie creates a very believable set of characters and allows all of them to behave in a consistent and realistic fashion, thereby creating credible conflict while still leading to an obvious and wildly satisfying conclusion. There's but one word to describe what a success this movie is. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!

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