A soccer film with perfect pitch

Times Staff Writer

"Anyone can cook aloo gobi," wails young Jess, dutiful Indian daughter and passionate British soccer player all in one. "But who can bend a ball like Beckham?"

That would be her idol, David Beckham, England's premier soccer professional, the cultural equivalent of Michael Jordan and the namesake of "Bend It Like Beckham," a smart, lively and altogether warmhearted dramatic comedy that blends tradition and modernity on screen as adroitly as teenage Jess does in her irresistibly complicated life.

Co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha (whose first film was the excellent "Bhaji on the Beach"), "Beckham's" story of Jess' determination to play the game in the face of parental disapproval has taken audience awards at film festivals from Locarno to Toronto.

It was also a steamroller sensation at the British box office, becoming not only the first film by a nonwhite Briton to reach No. 1 over there, but also ending up as that country's top-grossing British-financed and -distributed film ever. It's a success both deserved and understandable.

In general outline, "Beckham's" story of young people following their dreams, of the clash of aspirations between immigrant parents and assimilated children, is familiar. It's a fantasy of solvable problems and resolvable difficulties that appeals to our better selves if it's done with genuine heart and insight, which is very much the case here.

For there is all the difference in the world between recognizing the humor in individuals while still treating them with respect and cheapening characters by turning them into sitcom caricatures. There is a reality underneath "Beckham's" easy humor, an impeccable sense of milieu that is the result of knowing the culture intimately enough to poke fun at it while understanding its underlying integrity.

Collaborating with co-screenwriters Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges, director Chadha, though not a soccer player, put a good deal of herself into the film. Like Jess, she grew up in London's Southall neighborhood in a Sikh Punjabi family, and she knows where the jokes are in girls equally comfortable with traditional Indian greetings and the latest British slang and clothing styles.

Chadha opens "Beckham" with a charming, digitally created fantasy that shows young Jess (Parminder Nagra in a splendid debut) living out her dream by teaming with Beckham on the national squad as TV commentators rave about this new young player as "the answer to England's prayers."

Unfortunately, having a daughter whose room is filled with Beckhamiana and who treats a huge poster of the shaved-head star (known as "this bald man" to her dad) as her only confidant does not sit too well with Jess' parents. Her older sister, the shopaholic Pinky (Archie Panjabi), is about to be married, and that and university are where they think their daughter's ambitions should lie.

But Jess lives only for soccer, or football as it's known to the rest of the world. There's never been a pickup game in the nearby park that she can resist, and whenever her foot touches the ball, the film immediately has us understand, magic happens.

Clandestinely observing Jess in those park encounters is the equally soccer-mad Jules (Keira Knightley), short for Juliet, whose father encourages her in the sport but whose perplexed and flighty mother (Juliet Stevenson) wishes she would flirt more and exercise less.

Jules gets Jess onto the Hounslow Harriers, an all-girls team coached by the young and awfully handsome Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), once a promising player whose career was cut short by injury. She also tells her new friend about what things are like in America, where women actually compete in a professional league of their own.

Jess is more than delighted, informing her parents that there's a proper pitch and real uniforms and that she could "go far" in this exciting new world. "Go far to where?" asks her horrified mother. "You've played enough running around half-naked in front of men." End of story, end of soccer, but far from the end of the film.

For Jess is nothing if not a resourceful young woman, difficult to discourage where her beloved sport is concerned, and all manner of stratagems, crises and misunderstandings ensue as Jess and Jules put their heads together to get around the generic prohibition that "Indian girls aren't supposed to play football." And did anyone mention that awfully handsome young coach?

To tell a story like this well, it's essential to have a cast that can play the humor as well as the dignity, and "Beckham" does. There are seasoned veterans like Anupam Kher, already the star of more than 270 Bollywood films, as the troubled father, as well as singer-songwriter Shaznay Lewis of All Saints as the team's captain. But it is Nagra and Knightley, completely convincing as teammates, friends and maybe rivals, who create the film's bedrock of unshakable empathy.

What's especially gratifying about "Bend It Like Beckham" is that it's wise enough not to make the Indian parents into feckless figures of fun. Their opinions about soccer may be wrongheaded, but neither they nor the tradition they represent are disrespected by either their daughters or the film. Chadha dedicated the film to her own father, and a better tribute than a feel-good movie that actually makes you feel good is hard to imagine.


'Bend It Like Beckham'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some sexual situations

Times guidelines: Mostly innocent fun but some sexual suggestiveness

Parminder Nagra...Jess Bhamra

Keira Knightley...Jules Paxton

Jonathan Rhys Meyers...Joe

Anupam Kher...Mr. Bhamra

Archie Panjabi...Pink Bhamra

Juliet Stevenson...Paula Paxton

Kintop Pictures presents a Kintop Pictures/Bend It Films/Roc Media/Road Movies co-production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Gurinder Chadha. Producers Deepak Nayar, Gurinder Chadha. Executive producers Ulrich Felsberg, Zygi Kamasa, Simon Franks, Haneet Vaswani, Russel Fischer. Screenplay Gurinder Chadha, Guljit Bindra, Paul Mayeda Berges. Cinematographer Jong Lin. Editor Justin Krish. Costumes Ralph Holes. Music Craig Pruess. Production design Nick Ellis. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. In limited release

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