20th Century Fox Film via Everett Collection
Every four years, the world comes together for an international celebration of patriotism, skill and sport in the World Cup. The 2014 tournament kicks off Thursday afternoon in Brazil with an elaborate opening ceremony and an exciting match between the home country and Croatia. But if you’re looking to start the celebrations early – or you’re looking for something a little less intense for your first venture into watching the beautiful game – there are plenty of great soccer movies to tide you over until the game begins. However, there is one in particular that we’d recommend above all others, a film with heart, humor and an underdog story for the ages: Bend it Like Beckham.
It’s easy to write off Bend it Like Beckham as another cheesy teen movie. The references from 2002 are now completely dated, the film relies on a lot of common films tropes, and things can get a little too sentimental at times. You’ve probably seen a million films about a teenage girl who pursues her dreams despite her family’s disapproval, and even though the story of Jess (Parminder Nagra) attempting to balance her love of soccer with her Punjabi Shikh parents’ expectations of her doesn’t break any new ground, it does result in a film that is both relatable and entertaining.
It’s clear that writer/director Gurinder Chadha loves her characters, and that they, in turn, all love each other. Jess’ conflict isn’t about escaping from neglectful or abusive parents, it’s about finding a way to go after he dreams without hurting them in the process. Her relationship with her best friend Jules (Keria Knightley) is able to overcome any obstacle because they understand and care about each other, and they’re willing to stick by each other through everything. They don’t just become friends because of soccer, they genuinely love each other and have fun together, just like real best friends.
Thanks to Nagra’s performance, Jess is complex, interesting and honest. She’s not just struggling with her place in the world and dealing with the pressures that her family and culture have placed on her. She’s goofy and sarcastic with her friends, she’s there for her sister and her team when they need her. Jess is exactly the kind of person you’d want to be friends with – in fact, you probably already have a good friend just like her.
But for all its similarities to a typical teen movie, with Jess’ struggle to balance both aspects of her life, Bend it Like Beckham is fundamentally about soccer. It’s got everything a great sports movie requires: a compelling underdog story, characters overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, a coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Joe) who pushes the lead to be the best she can be, a team coming together to triumph, and friendship. It deals with cultural identity, it looks at the bond between teammates, it has a message about sports bringing people together and helping them overcome their differences.
Bend it Like Beckham is also a female-fronted sports movie, which is all too rare in Hollywood. There are montages of the team training, in which the focus in on how strong and skilled these women are, and there are discussions about the way society perceives women who are focused on their sport, rather than shopping and dating. The first soccer scene in the film shows Jess handily beating the neighborhood boys at a game in the park, effortlessly out-running and out-maneuvering them. It’s part of our introduction to who she is and the passion she has for the game, but it’s also an important moment outside of the film, if only because it’s so rare to see onscreen, especially with the way the boys admire her talent.
Just like the movie doesn’t shy away from looking at the way Jess and Jules have to contend with traditional gender roles and societal expectations, it’s also not afraid to deal with cultural issues and prejudices as well. An opponent calls Jess a slur during a match, her parents feel that girls shouldn’t play soccer because it’s inappropriate and immodest, and there are scenes that showcase Indian customs and traditions, but don’t treat them as something exotic or unusual. All of those various elements come together, like they do in all great sports movies, thanks to one climatic final game. Jess leaves her sister’s wedding, and helps her team win, having found a way to support both her family and her team. It’s a local tournament, but it’s as tense as a World Cup final because you’ve grown to care about these characters, so when they triumph, you feel their joy.
Bend it Like Beckham isn’t the most hardcore or heart wrenching of sports movies, nor does it have the highest stakes. It is, however, responsible for helping a generation of American teenagers discover the game of soccer and to see David Beckham as more than just “Posh Spice’s husband.” More importantly, it’s also a funny, touching, relatable film about friends, family and football. And that makes it the perfect way to celebrate the World Cup – or to get to know the basics about the sport everyone will spend the next few weeks talking about.