Despite Bend It Like Beckham’s high level of critical acclaim, I approached it with some doubts. First of all, my interest in soccer (or football, as it’s called in Great Britain) is somewhere less than nil. Secondly, the film sounded for all the world like a teenaged version of Billy Elliott with soccer standing in for dance, and with Anglo-Indian culture clash piled on top of that. In other words, the story, which sounded derivative and overcomplicated, seemed as if it were aiming to outdistance — or at least equal — some pretty hefty contenders.
Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott is a tough act to follow. And culture-clash comedies reached their pinnacle with the Hanif Kureishi-scripted pair of Stephen Frears-directed 1980s films My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (not to mention Kureishi’s undeservedly obscure directorial debut, London Kills Me). While there’s no denying that Beckham draws on these films, and is in many ways is plowing some pretty well-plowed fields, it still succeeds on its own good-natured merits, brimming with the joy of life and its colorful diversities — along with the intoxicating joy of filmmaking.
Director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha (with whose earlier work I am completely unfamiliar — a situation I plan on rectifying) has crafted such a clever, exuberant and ultimately engaging film that creeps up on you — you find yourself liking it before you quite realize what’s happening. Like a very rich dessert, it’s just too full of wonderful things for its own good, making it impossible to resist.
Storywise, Beckham is simplicity itself: Jesminder/Jess Bharma (Parminder K. Nagra) is the daughter of an orthodox Sikh couple living in a solidly middle-class London suburb. A natural athlete, Jess wants nothing so much as to play soccer, following the model of her idol, David Beckham (a household name in England, and married to Posh Spice, the movie informs us). Jess’ mother, however, considers soccer improper for a young Indian girl, and her father — still stinging from the prejudice that prevented him from playing cricket in his adopted country — doesn’t want to see his daughter hurt. Jess’s life changes when Juliette Paxton (Keira Knightley) recruits her to play on a girls’ soccer team coached by a handsome Irish boy named Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Jess will sneak around on her family in order to pursue her goal. Moreover, the various romantic complications that will arise are also not hard to guess — though the film shrewdly leads the viewer down the garden path by suggesting a Billy Elliott-like subplot that plays out very differently than expected. That said, none of this prepares the viewer for the densely packed incidents and tangents that flesh out the film — nor its depth in examination what’s not simply a culture clash, but a generational one. It’s not for nothing that the family keeps a large picture of a Sikh spiritual leader on the living room wall while Jess — a product of a different time and a different society — has a photo of her own spiritual leader, Beckham, over her bed.
A secondary plot involving Juliette’s mother (somewhat overplayed by Juliette Stevenson) and her outdated and ridiculous notions of girls involved in sports (“Just remember, there’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fellow!”) furthers the generational discussion, and the movie’s reflections on prejudice, as does the subplot involving Jess’s friend, Tony (Ameet Chana), and her sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi); but revealing too much here would spoil the fun of this very fun film.
Yet Beckham is hardly mindless (think: the sitcomization of cultural differences in My Big Fat Greek Wedding?); it’s fun with a point — about tolerance and dreams. But while Chadha never downplays her message, neither does she let it get in the way of the film’s basic humor and humanity. The result is an undeniably warm, winning work that may never quite scale the heights of Billy Elliott or My Beautiful Laundrette, but neither does it disgrace those models.