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Sunday, February 23, 2003

Bend It Like Beckham
On Thursday night, R and I went to a preview screening of Bend It Like Beckham. I wasn’t sure that they’d manage to fill the cinema for a soccer movie whose title 99 percent of Americans will find incomprehensible, but when we got to the Guild 45th, there was a line all around the block—the usual free-film suspects, but also a bunch of youth soccer girls and lots of Indian families.

One of my co-workers refuses to see British movies—especially feelgood comedies in which downtrodden young people/miners/prisoners/widows/mixed-race families/unemployed steelworkers dance/blow brass instruments/garden/grow marijuana/sculpt sex organs/strip through the pain. Seen one brave escape from working class philistinism/Thatcher/criminality/poverty/grotty back streets/emasculating joblessness, you’ve seen them all, he reckons. I don’t disagree, but I must admit, I loved this movie.

It’s a feel-good fiesta, an uplift-athon: not just an escape narrative but also a sports story—two genres that offer few surprises. The working-class lad always gets the ballet scholarship; the soccer player always scores the winning goal. And in a film about an Indian family, mom and dad are always going to fret about the loss of traditional values while the next generation pushes up against the old ways. And yet, and yet … the film was knockout, magic, over the moon.

Jess is a tomboy: She wears trackies and loves to kick the bawl abaht. Her ma and pa are middle-class Sikhs who emigrated from Kenya decades ago. They live in a nice house in Hounslow, and dad works at Heathrow Airport. There’s a bit of "Goodness Gracious Me" head-bobbing action over Jess’ lack of marital prospects and her preference for watching soccer rather than perfecting her Punjabi cooking, but thank goodness sister Pinky has just got engaged. Jess talks to her posters of David Beckham the way her mom prays to Baba Ji. When Jules, a young (gorgeous) white woman asks her to try out for the local women’s soccer team, Jess has to deceive her folks (not terribly convincingly) so she can train and fulfill her role as savior of the soccer squad. She’s torn between respecting her family and using her talent to help her team, and in the end—never!—she gets to do both.

Jess and Jules do the old 1-2 to perfection, are mistaken for a couple, fall out over a guy, but make up and score again just in time for the movie’s big finish. There’s adversity, there’s triumph over adversity, there’s a gorgeous, pouting bit of tracksuit trou for the girls to fight over. (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who plays the coach as a paragon of virtue and a fountain of sage advice, basically has the role of the “good girl” who shows up in most sports movies—the plucky, virtuous pretty thing who watches over the hero and motivates him along the path of righteousness.)

So what did I like? The acting was great. The only faces I recognized were Rhys-Meyers and the always awesome Juliet Stevenson, but there wasn’t a dud in the cast. Yes, there were a lot of “ish-shoes,” but overall they were nicely handled. Writer/director Gurinder Chadha’s always good with gayness (see, for example, Kyra Sedgwick and Juliana Margulies as seriously sexy lesbians in her very American film What’s Cooking?), but it was particularly well-done here, especially considering that, in the States at least, the film is going to be marketed to teens.

In her 1993 film Bhaji on the Beach (I guess Chadha has a thing for alliterative B-titles), there were some lovely—and profound—observations about immigration and assimilation. Ten years later things have changed a lot, and she showed the changes very nicely. Socially, Asians in Britain have moved on up; they’re established. Indian guys dress better, and they do the washing up. Racism is more subtle. White (and black) people aren’t grumbling about being swamped by immigrants, but they still ask the same old questions about arranged marriages and have fixed ideas about Indian families.

I have no idea how the movie will do in the States. The title is meaningless here; the soccer commentator cameos might as well be in Punjabi; and as is always the case, the British social signifiers are lost on the American audience. Still, I hope it does well. A feel-good movie that makes you feel good deserves success.

NOTE: I had to redo this entry because for some reason the permalinks didn't work on the posts I made this morning. By deleting the original, I also deleted the comments that Pam and Anita had made. Many apologies for that. I'd love to have more comments on this site, so I feel particularly bad about deleting some of the few that I receive. Nothing personal, I promise!