Genre Spotlight: Bend It Like Beckham


“Honey, all I’m saying is there is a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fella.”

Ah, the early 2000s, when David Beckham was king, the Spice Girls weren’t quite a distant memory, and Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain were kicking ass and taking names in front of a world audience. It was a new millennium, the entire world appeared to be changing before our very eyes, and every soccer-playing teenage girl just knew in their hearts that it could be all theirs, if only given the chance.

Unfortunately for some, chances are hard to come by. Take Jess (Parminder Nagra), for example, who must overcome not only the prevailing attitude of girls-shouldn’t-play-sports, but the conservative traditions of a Sikh family and community as well. Lucky for her, her skills in a park pick-up game catches the attention of Jules (a then-unknown Keira Knightley), who convinces her to try out for her local league team. After a rough start, Jess manages to win over the coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and makes the team…but is getting the chance to “bend the ball” with the greats worth having to also bend the truth and the rules to get there?

Ignoring the billion-dollar endorsement deals and parades of anonymous motel-room floozies for a moment, the whole point of playing sports is supposed to be about building strength and integrity, about focus and empowerment. How sad a commentary it is, then, that Jess’s parents try to forbid sports from her life, pushing her to be more like her shrill, shallow, “girly” and “traditional” sister Pinky (Archie Panjaby), because that’s “normal”. While this attitude is shown to be by no means culturally exclusive (Jess’s and Jules’s mothers would probably have much to discuss), Jess’s point of view is also not that simple: she hates the attitude, but she loves her family; she loves her culture, but she also loves living in London, loves sport, and understands, in the distinct way of all “third culture” young people, that no one has to be all one thing or the other.

It is this very attitude that makes Bend It Like Beckham so distinctive in the rather crowded field of feel-good family movies. At just about every point where the story could degenerate into simple cliché, director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha manages to put her own spin on things. Instead of a simple culture clash/generation gap story, we’re shown that Jess’s father’s (Anupam Kher) attitude ties heavily into a specific incident in his past with which he has not yet come to terms – this is his story, too. Instead of a story about a young girl simply trying to break free, we’re shown the story of someone who is trying to respect her family at the same time as she is not so much trying to win the big game as she is wanting to even be allowed on the field…of life.

There are simple, brilliant touches peppered throughout the movie showing the clash of cultures, of old attitudes vs. new infiltrating all aspects of life – the look on Jess and Pinky’s father’s face at Pinky’s constantly-changing wedding plans; the generally bewildered attitude of the (white) neighbors; cell phones, everywhere, always ringing, always reporting. There are just as many moments showing that this is just one mere microcosm of the world – one culture in a multicultural society, one family in a world of families. Yet, it is always the most personal stories that are also the most universal – last year, Bend It Like Beckham became the first ever Western-made movie to be broadcast on North Korean television.

But, lest we forget, Bend It Like Beckham is also a story about soccer. The action is well-shot, dynamic, and exciting, even if you don’t follow the sport (kick or head-butt the ball into net, don’t use your hands or arms unless you’re a goalie, don’t be the last person to touch the ball before it leaves the field or else the other team gets it, and don’t recklessly or intentionally try to hurt other players – it really is pretty much that simple, unless you want to get into the offside rule, but the movie even does a good job of explaining that). Most of the players on the teams are played by actual, professional soccer players, and their skill and passion show through. Yes, it’s only a movie, but anyone who still thinks that girls can’t play sports or that girls shouldn’t play soccer would do well to take notice here.

Bend It Like Beckham is not a perfect movie. It’s just a hair too long, with the requisite push-and-pull between family and team/coach going on perhaps two cycles too many. There’s also a tacked-on and really rather inappropriate romantic subplot – inappropriate not necessarily in a moral sense (though there is that, too), but in the sense that it really has nothing to do with the rest of the story and pretty much lifts right out. (Mike C.’s pet peeves about movies #486: why does EVERY story have to somehow turn into a love story??)

In the end, Jess does not take the easy (that is, dishonest) way out, even when the perfect opportunity to do so drops into her lap. That’s not what Bend It Like Beckham about – it’s not about winning, or about getting your own way, it’s about actually becoming a better person. That is the lesson that every family movie, and every sports movie, should teach.

Sadly, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) to which Jess and Jules aspire has since closed up shop (ironically, just weeks after the movie’s release); however, with a new decade, another Women’s World Cup, new stars such as Abby Wambach and Hope Solo becoming household names, and a new professional league out and kicking (WPS – support your local clubs!), there is hope that, for a new generation of young people, the dream will live alive again. Or maybe the dream never went anywhere, but like a good aloo gobi has been sitting on the stove the entire time, tightly covered, spices permeating every piece of potato, onion, cauliflower…. Mmmm, curry….

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Posted on September 9, 2011, in Genre Spotlight, Sports and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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