An Anglo-Indian girl gets to realize her dream after meeting a blonde English tomboy in “Bend It Like Beckham,” a pleasantly amusing comedy set in the world of women’s amateur soccer. As in her previous two features, “Bhaji on the Beach” and “What’s Cooking?,” writer-helmer Gurinder Chadha assembles a gallery of broadly played stereotypes into a movie about social attitudes that’s more rooted in small-screen sitcom than anything deeper.
With crossover appeal to Indian communities as well as to soccer fans, pic could do some fancy footwork at Blighty’s B.O. and, on eccentric charm alone, make a modest impression offshore. Movie’s strong sapphic subtext, for those who wish to find it, also opens up a further demographic for this calculated exercise in low-budget, feel-good comedy.
Jess (striking newcomer Parminder Nagra) is the younger daughter in a traditional Anglo-Indian family in Southall, west London. Her father (Bollywood star Anupam Kher) is a stern paterfamilias; her mother (Shaheen Khan) is always at her to help out with household chores; and her bitchy, fashion-obsessed sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), is about to be a good daughter and marry her longtime b.f., Teetu (Kulvinder Ghir).
However, the only man in Jess’ life is David Beckham, star player of Manchester United soccer team, whose pictures adorn her bedroom. Between preparing for exams to study law, 18-year-old Jess loves kicking a ball around with some local lads in the park. When she’s spotted by Jules (Keira Knightley), who plays for nearby women’s soccer team the Hounslow Harriers, Jules invites the shy Jess to try out — which involves Jess leading a whole second existence concealed from her parents.
Thereafter, pic quickly settles down into a by-the-numbers story of a teenager caught between what she wants and what her traditional parents want for her.
Main characters are all leading secret or outsider lives. The Harriers’ young trainer, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is not only Irish (an “outsider,” like Jess, in English society) but also was held back from realizing his dream by a knee injury. There’s even a sensitive Indian friend of Jess’ who turns out to be gay. Jules, who dreams of going to the U.S. to progress in women’s soccer, has a conservative, brassy mom (Juliet Stevenson, channeling Joan Plowright) who’d rather see her wearing dresses and chasing boys instead of footballs.
All of this is unrolled in a script that’s often fanciful and clumsily written, with some lackluster, heavily expository dialogue; but, as in Chadha’s “Bhaji,” pic scrapes by on its full-blooded performances. After tacitly acknowledging — in a whole mistaken-identity subplot — that the pic’s real love story is not between Jess and Joe but between Jess and Jules, script cranks up for a genuinely enjoyable third act, cross-cutting between a crucial soccer match and Pinky’s wedding, which finally brings some cinematic oomph to the material. Coda, at Heathrow Airport, hammers home its messages with six-inch nails.
Still, Nagra’s perf as Jess is almost worth the price of admission alone. In her first bigscreen role, Nagra breathes real spunk into a schematically written part and, with her hypnotic eyes and winning smile, turns the frumpy Jess into a character who can hold her own amid a gallery of colorful parts.
In comparison, up-and-coming teen actress Knightley, from “The Phantom Menace” and Brit thriller “The Hole,” still seems more of a fashion plate than a natural actress.
Rhys Meyers is solid but low-key as the girls’ trainer, while Shaznay Lewis, former singer with Brit girl group All Saints, is splashier in a smaller part as the team captain. Elders’ roles are all richly cast and played, with Kher very good in his first non-Bollywood part and Stevenson going eye-poppingly over the top as Jules’ brassy, social-climber mom, a WASP equivalent of Jess’.
Soccer scenes don’t rely on any special enthusiasm for or knowledge of the game and are reasonably convincingly staged and shot. In general, lensing by Jong Lin is functional, with little added gloss. Production and costume design, however, offer lots of small telling touches, and the Indian-Western song/music soundtrack gives the movie some bounce.