An Indian family in West London tries to raise their youngest daughter Jess (Parminder Nagra) traditionally honing her domestic skills and teaching her how to cook Punjab dinners–both meat and vegetarian. Jess’ ambitions however are somewhat less orthodox: she wants to play soccer. And why shouldn’t she? Jess not only has the talent to bend the ball like Beckham she also has the tenacity to bend the gender rules governing her favorite sport. But her parents don’t think soccer is feminine and would prefer she focus on school and marriage like her older sister Pinky. But Jess gets an offer she can’t refuse from Jules (Keira Knightley) who recruits her for a local girls’ soccer team the Hounslow Harriers. Jess secretly joins the team but tells her parents she has landed a part-time job at the local HMV record store instead. Her web of lies quickly turns into a modern comedy of errors as her parents suspect she is sneaking around with a boy and Jules’ parents assume the girls are involved in a lesbian relationship.
In her feature film debut Nagra impressively creates a character you can’t help but love. Jess is a typical teenager whose bedroom walls are plastered with posters of her favorite idols (mostly David Beckham). And she’s no girly girl either; she prefers to bounce a head of lettuce on her knee rather than toss a mean salad. As Jules Knightley (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) is just as likeable in her first feature lead. Although their characters are very different the one thing they have in common is their mothers’ disdain for the sport which they see as a big man-turnoff. “There’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fellow ” Jules’ mom warns. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (the upcoming Prozac Nation) plays Joe–the soccer coach and the object of the girls’ affection. He’s not a macho jock character but actually a sweet guy wise beyond his years. Bollywood star Anupam Kher plays Jess’ dad a stern disciplinarian who also knows when to throw in the towel. Bend It Like Beckham marks his first English-language feature.
Director Gurinder Chadha (What’s Cooking) delivers a teenage-angst/girl-power pic that is involving and entertaining. She tackles the common coming-of-age theme of bucking family tradition without pigeonholing the film’s teen heroine. I appreciate the fact for example that Jess’ character isn’t embarrassed by her family’s ethnicity and doesn’t spend the entire film brooding about growing up differently as Toula did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She has no qualms about showing up for a soccer game wearing a sari; she just wants her family to accept her as a young and thriving individual–even if it means bending their views about women and soccer. Really changing preconceptions is a big part of what Bend It Like Beckham is about. The title doesn’t just refer to Beckham’s soccer abilities but also to the way he challenges stereotypes of the traditional soccer player–much as Jess and Jules do. But that doesn’t mean the film skimps on the soccer action; it’s packed with speedy and authentic looking match sequences that capture the English passion for the sport and for Beckham as well.