Bend It Like Beckham
Those of us who got up at 4:30 every morning last June to watch the World Cup from Korea and Japan know very well what "Bend It Like Beckham" means. The English soccer team's star can take a free kick, bend it around the opposing team's wall, and stick it into the far corner of the net over the arms of the keeper. Beckham is one of the great players in the world today.
On the other hand, "Bend It Like Beckham" - the movie - is a sadly undernourished and overlong attempt to tell the inspiring story of a talented young Sikh girl, Jesminder (Parminder K. Nagra), growing up in London in a very traditional family, with parents who think soccer is unladylike ("Showing your legs to boys!" is her mother's angry comment), and how she ends up with a scholarship to Santa Clara and a possible professional contract. In the course of the film she has to surmount her parents' opposition, the scheduling of her big game on the day of her sister's wedding, the mistaken impression that she and her teammate Juliette (Keira Knightley) are lesbian lovers, and her own unrequited crush on her (male) coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
That's a lot of weight to put on a seventeen-year-old, and it isn't helped by the fact that the actress Nagra is actually 27 and looks it, and can't play a lick of soccer. Co-writer-director Gurinder Chadha has to cut so frantically around Nagra to make the soccer scenes at all believable that we wonder why she was cast in the first place.
There's more, of course. Jes's father (Anupam Kher) was a great cricket star in his youth in Kenya, but when he came to England he was kicked off his team because he was not white. Now, instead of being proud of his daughter, he wants to protect her from what he expects will be the racism that turned him off. Her mother (Shaheen Khan) wants only for Jes to find a husband, learn to cook, and be a traditional wife. Coach Joe has issues with his (unseen) Irish father, who forced him so harshly to compete as a young player that he blew out his knee and can no longer play. Jes's good friend Tony (Ameet Chana) comes out to her as gay. It's a good thing the script didn't call for a confession of some sort by Tony Blair.
The film has its moments, but they lie around the fringes of the story. The preparations for Jes's sister's wedding are fascinating to those of us from an alien culture. Keira Knightley, as Juliette, is both beautiful - with a model's killer cheekbones - and believable in her role as an athlete. But with a central figure so out of place and unlikely in the part, the film just sags whenever she must take charge of a scene. For those of us who love the game and love films, it's a double disappointment.