Bend It Like Beckham is the most exhilarating movie so far this year. It’s made up of many familiar elements – think ”Monsoon Wedding” meets ”My Beautiful Laundrette” meets ”Personal Best” – yet before long, you catch on to how buoyant and funny and original it is. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, it’s a culturally cross-wired sports comedy that’s infused with what might be called the greater global vibe of Title IX – that is, the spirit of sports equality as experienced by the first generation of women who grew up taking that equality for granted.
Made with a craftsmanship and pizzazz that restores your appreciation for honest commercial moviemaking, ”Bend It Like Beckham” puts a new definition of femininity on screen, casual and cool and in your face. Jess (Parminder Nagra), the Indian-Anglo teenage heroine, has grown up in London, where she’s obsessed with soccer and good enough at it to kick circles around the local boys. Her fantasy is to go pro, following in the cleat-steps of her idol, British superstar David Beckham. Yet Jess’ parents, who are adamant about holding on to their traditional Sikh ways, won’t allow her to play.
If I had a dime for every time someone asked me how I could have hated ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I think I’d gather up the money, rent out a theater, and invite all of them to see ”Bend It Like Beckham,” in which Jess’ hilariously blinkered, scolding, and overprotective parents evince a similar ”ethnic” paranoia without ever sacrificing their humanity to sitcom tics. As her mother (Shaheen Khan) skulks through the house, cooking up Punjabi cuisine as if it were some stern sacramental rite, her pilot father (Anupam Kher), whom Jess is much closer to, sits around in his uniform and red turban, the outfit an emblem of his torn cultural allegiance. Meanwhile, Jess’ older sister (Archie Panjabi), with her nattering refrain of ”Innit?,” may sound like an East Ender, but she’s about to have a traditional Indian wedding.
Jess, a rebel who feels conflicted tugs of loyalty toward everything her family represents, surreptitiously joins a girls’ league team and strikes up a flirtation with the dreamboat Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). But she’s forced to keep all of this a big secret. She has also been given a teammate buddy (Keira Knightly) who’s her rival for the coach’s affections. In a great gag, the friend’s mother, played with sublime terror by Juliet Stevenson, starts to think they’re lesbians.
Pretty and petite in a homespun way, Nagra’s Jess is also, at first, a bit passive and morose. Yet that’s all by design: She’s a girl who lets out her aggression only on the field, and the movie offers the delicious 21st-century paradox of a wallflower who is fully in touch with her inner soccer bruiser yet still in search of her inner woman. The final half hour, which crosscuts between the sister’s wedding and Jess’ big soccer match (attended by American scouts, natch), manages to be even more impassioned than ”Monsoon Wedding” and, at the same time, a pure Hollywood rouser. Where can Gurinder Chadha, as a filmmaker, go from here? From the looks of it, anywhere in the world she wants.