Bend It Like Beckham March 10, 2023
Jonathan Rhys Meyers
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
ary an inch of wall in Jesminder’s (Parminder Nagra) bedroom goes untouched by a David Beckham poster. That love, it’ll soon be made clear, isn’t quite the same as the kind felt by most other teenage girls all moon-eyed over a heartthrob. Part of the reason she loves him so much is that she wants to be him a little bit. Jesminder, who goes by Jess, wants nothing more than to be a soccer player.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002) begins with her deep inside an extended daydream where she’s celebrating a victory on the field alongside her idol and then commended for her work on a newscast. As anything soccer-related in her life tends to be, the daydream is prematurely interrupted by her mother, Sukhi (Shaheen Khan). Sukhi and her husband, Mohaan (Anupam Kher), migrated years ago from Uganda to Hounslow, London, and both hold steadfastly to the cultural traditions with which they and other local émigrés were raised. Sukhi and Mohaan clearly favor Jess’ older sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who is more traditionally feminine and will marry soon. (She is, however, clandestinely enjoying a robust sex life.) Jess, meanwhile, is treated like a romantically hopeless tomboy whom Sukhi thinks she can successfully reshape and remold as long as she teaches her how to make the right dishes — if she just finds the right man to wife her daughter. Though Sukhi and Mohaan had cosseted their daughter’s love for soccer when she was a kid, they’re absolutely certain she now must wise up, the shin guards relinquished for a seriousness about the future.
But Jess only gets more passionate about her sport of choice by the day, cultivated by regular scrimmages with some neighborhood boys who love to underestimate her almost as much as they do making piggish comments about any woman who happens to enter their line of sight. Luckily, Jess isn’t one of those tragically common dreamers whose lofty goals aren’t sturdily supported by the talent they actually bring to the table. She’s truly gifted.
That’s validated not long into the movie. Jules (Keira Knightley), another young woman who plays with a local women’s soccer team, observes Jess’ skills from afar across a couple afternoons and eventually works up the nerve to poach her for a spot. Friendship is fast; so is Jess’ value on the team that adopts her. Bend It Like Beckham becomes a stressful cultural-difference comedy where Jess tries to keep her soccer playing a secret from her ever-dismaying family; inevitably cannot; and has to stand up for herself in front of people who unsurprisingly will learn to grudgingly accept, then celebrate, a path for their daughter they not long ago might have rather died over than live to see her go down.
Bend It Like Beckham narratively always goes where you think it will. But I didn’t mind its reliance on feel-good sports-movie clichés. We have no problem rooting for the plucky-but-conflicted Jess; she knows what she wants as much as she sympathizes with her parents, and we can feel both those things so acutely that that internal tussle practically throbs. The movie also has a lot of inspired comic and emotional touches that freshen up a plot otherwise disposed to staleness. The comedy especially comes from the mouth of Jules’ hilariously clueless, but generally well-meaning, mother (Juliet Stevenson); emotional tugs are often found in Mohaan’s protectiveness, which is, we soon learn, more than a little motivated by personal experience. He too holds firm the traditional values of his wife (who, it must be said, is only really allowed to be a cartoonish, perpetually screeching shrew). But Mohaan also saw his own sports dreams dashed when he was about the same age. He’d had his daughter’s same ardency when he came to London as a young man, but ultimately the life of the professional athlete he hoped for was dashed by the racism he faced. He worries about Jess experiencing the kind of disappointment that never stops aching.
Bend It Like Beckham falls flattest in its editing. All game-centric scenes are shot so nonsensically — probably to obscure that being a great actor does not beget great soccer playing — that they’re like garbled collages. Nearly as flat are the movie’s attempts at conjuring romantic conflict. The girls’ slightly older coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is rendered an object of affection worth fighting over, a framing vexing because of the age difference, for one, the power imbalance for another. His character’s tendency to annoyingly make false and presented-as-legitimate equivalencies around his own experiences (he’s white) and Jess’ experiences with racism and an upbringing in a conservative household doesn’t do much by way of making a case for an already unappealing character.
There’s also a feeling that Bend It Like Beckham would exponentially improve if this was instead as much a movie about one girl’s love for the game as a romance between her and Jules. They have a chemistry that increasingly feels more romantic than simply sororal, unhelped by how Knightley is so often styled in a certain young-DiCaprio lesbian chic that feels not accidental. That so much of Jules and Jess’ friendship-building is relegated to montage and not relished in through extended scenes is disappointing in a way that specifically feels like watching a romantic comedy with the usual charming date scenes fast-forwarded through. B+