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film: Soccer Punch

Equal parts sports, comedy, romance and culture-clash combine to make "Bend It Like Beckham" the feel-good movie of 2003.


Although it's more than a little bit like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" meets "Billy Elliot" by way of the colorful and exotic "Monsoon Wedding," one thing's for sure — "Bend It Like Beckham" is great fun.

At the heart of the movie is one Jess Bhamra (newcomer Parminder Nagra), the younger daughter in a traditional Indian family living outside London. As such, Jess's future would naturally hold the promise of college, then marriage, followed quickly, of course, by motherhood. But that's not even remotely what this spirited blend of Old and New World has in mind. Oh no, she wants to be a professional soccer player, just like her idol David Beckham. Her bedroom resembles more of a shrine to the Manchester United professional than a place to enjoy a peaceful slumber.

To say Jess is hardly in tune with the traditional attitudes of her Sikh Punjabi family is a gross understatement. Jess's mother (Shaheen Khan) and shopaholic, wedding-obsessed sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), consider a woman's place to be squarely in front of the stove, diving for the curry powder and chickpeas. "Anyone can cook aloo gobi," responds a disdainful Jess (who at one point juggles a head of cabbage with her feet behind her mother's back). "But who can bend a ball like Beckham?" To her mother's horror and her sister's disgust, Jess spends her free time kicking a soccer ball around with the neighborhood boys. Her poor befuddled father (Anupam Kher), on the other hand, stares at the massive poster of Beckham adorning the walls of Jess's bedroom with dismay. Who is "this bald man," he wonders out loud? What could Jess possibly be thinking?

Enter Jules, short for Juliette (Keira Knightley, who looks like the British edition of Winona Ryder), to recruit Jess for her team. Not far behind comes the well-lighted arrival of the coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a blue-eyed, full-lipped, hottie-jock who's soon playing more than soccer in the fantasies of both young women.

At this point, it would have been so easy for Chadha to make her movie into nothing more than sports-themed romance. Instead, Chadha crafts something much rarer: a story about the exhilarating joy a young woman gets from a team sport — and from "bending" the ball in a perfect Beckham-inspired arc, right into the goal.

Like all sports movies, "Bend It Like Beckham" does have that overworked, somewhat contrived big game showdown moment. But once again, Chadha decides to imbue this confrontation with a witty twist. Setting it to the well-known epic loveliness of a Puccini aria, Chadha also adds dream figures from Jess's family onto the playing field. There, in metaphoric splendor, Old World values and traditions confront New, while brightly colored saris waft and float with the changing wind. On the field of play, Jess and the audience share an epiphany.

Blissfully, Chadha's uncanny eye for composition and detail shows us, rather than tells us, of the isolation felt by the Indian community in which Jess lives. In one of many Chadha-inspired scenes, we observe a brightly hued backyard party celebrating Pinky's engagement. But then, ever so subtly, Chadha's camera begins to pull out, slowly showing what soon resembles an island of riotous swirling yellows and inks surrounded by a sea of drab gray.

One could rightfully accuse "Bend It Like Beckham" of being a tad on the formulaic side and its screenplay overflowing with unnecessary confrontations. But these are minor flaws that signify little, especially when compared to the joy the film engenders. It matters not a whit whether one knows anything about soccer, teenage girls, Indian culture or the Manchester United soccer team; this film is for anyone who's ever felt like an outsider and can appreciate the simple strength of hopes and dreams. With "Bend It Like Beckham," Chadha has created something magical. ***** S

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