The “chick flick” has a new kid sister that is quickly becoming its own subgenre — the girl-power sports movie. Think “A League of Their Own” or more recently, “Blue Crush.”
You’ve seen it all before. The formulaic, predictable plot lines; the underdog female athlete working for some seemingly unreachable let alone unorthodox goal; the problematic love interest; and the frequent feminist tirades that accent the dialogue.
Add to this group of films “Bend It Like Beckham,” an English movie about Jess (Parminder K. Nagra), a talented neighborhood soccer player who is not only a girl, she’s Indian. (Audible gasp!) Immediately you’re thinking, great, another recycled sports movie, but this time peppered with culture clash cliches. Well, you’re only partly right. “Bend It Like Beckham” is definitely lite and overflows with stereotypes, but it’s also fresh and spirited, and it playfully pokes fun at its own genre.
Eighteen-year-old Jess idolizes Manchester United football superstar David Beckham — the film’s title refers to his technique for curving penalty kicks around a wall of defenders. She speaks adoringly to the Beckham posters that plaster her bedroom walls and sports his jersey when she plays soccer with the neighborhood boys. During one such pickup game, Jess is discovered by Josie (Keira Knightley), a fellow female football fanatic, who invites Jess to play for a girls’ school team.
Of course, these plans don’t go over well with Jess’s traditional Indian parents. As they prepare for their elder daughter Pinky’s wedding, they voice their frustration with Jess’s obsession with that “skinhead boy” Beckham. If only Jess would pursue a law degree, get married and learn how to cook a “full Punjabi dinner.” And so ensues Jess’s clandestine efforts to play for the team while simultaneously satisfying her family’s expectations.
Despite the formulaic underdog setup, the film is surprisingly fun to watch. This is mostly because of the strong lead character who carries the film. Jess is intelligent, ripped, and endearingly earnest, and her impressive footwork on the field doesn’t hurt. For once, you actually see the sport being played on screen, as opposed to bikini-clad girls masquerading as surfers in “Blue Crush.”
“Bend It” is also infused with a fresh, enticing Bollywood energy. The pace is light-hearted, quick and erratic as the story bounces from sub-plot to sub-plot. Rich with flamboyant intercutting, whip pans and an energized MTV flavor, “Bend It” proves itself more modern than any Mira Nair film. And its witty dialogue gives it a large dose of spunk. When Josie’s mom bemoans her daughter’s tendency to buy sports bras instead of padded lingerie, she states, “All I’m saying is there is a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella.”
The film is problematic, however, because most of the characters are reduced to cardboard stereotypes. Certainly, “Bend It” touches on issues of race and sexuality, brings up the double standards that still exist in modern society, and broaches the conflict of family loyalty versus personal desire. But the film only grazes these complex issues, almost afraid to plunge into them with any depth. And the constant and abrupt oscillation from comedy to drama makes “Bend It” quiver anxiously on the edge of farce and melodrama. What saves the film is its tongue-in-cheek tone that playfully tugs at the very stereotypes it propagates.
Though “Bend It” is courageous enough to broach these touchy subjects, it simplifies the problems and ties up story lines with saccharine closure. This is fine, even expected, in a fairy tale, but it does not ring true in a film which purports to be something else.
What “Bend It” does succeed at is portraying a sheer love of soccer. And this makes the film — especially the game sequences — thrilling to watch. Director Gurinder Chadha brilliantly contrasts Jess’ passion for the game with her duties to her family. Look for brilliant touches like Jess practicing her footwork with a head of lettuce while her mother tries to teach her to cook a full Punjabi dinner. And not to be missed is a masterfully edited montage that cuts between a colorful, traditional Indian wedding and an intense soccer match.
“Bend It Like Beckham” is fresh, sweet and charming. But it’s still missing something. You know from the beginning how it’s all going to end, and because of its sheer predictability the film doesn’t transcend its genre’s limitations. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun time. I know I left the theater in high spirits, inspired to drop everything and chase a checkered ball around a field.