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BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan
Director:  Gurinder Chadha
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  September 30, 2003

“No boy’s gonna want to go out with a girl who’s got bigger muscles than him…all I’m saying is that there’s a REASON why Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fellow.”  

Film ***

When an Indian girl in England becomes torn between dreams of football glory (soccer, to those of us in the States) and duty to family, there can only be one result:  the biggest word-of-mouth film success since My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

In fact, Bend it Like Beckham followed almost the same pattern to a tee:  first arriving here and there in very limited release, people started seeing it and talking about it.  Critics were praising it.  People in cities where the film wasn’t playing started hearing about it and asking for it.  Finally, it enjoyed the full national release it always deserved once distributors were convinced that it had been no hoax.  Moviegoers simply loved this picture.

There wasn’t much originality in the way the film climbed to success, and to be truthful, there’s not a lot in the content of the story, either.  The movie deals with themes that we’ve seen time and time again in coming of age tales.  In addition to immediacy versus tradition, there are the blossoming love angle, the best friends who fight because of it and make up at the end, lovingly comic digs at cultural ways and the older generation, homosexuality played for both laughs and serious points, and so on.  Basically, a leap from the top of the cliché tree that aimed for every branch on the way down.

But I’d rather see a good movie that’s unoriginal than an original film that’s poor.  And Bend it Like Beckham succeeds because of a great spirit and charm inherent in the script, the characters, and the actresses portraying them.

Jess Bharma (Nagra) is the tomboyish daughter of Indian immigrants in England.  Her mother (Khan) wants only the traditional best for her girl:  namely, for her to learn the family recipes, marry a nice Indian boy, and following in her footsteps as well as countless years of tradition. 

But Jess has a secret love and talent:  she can bend the ball like Beckham.  While her family has a portrait of a great Indian spiritual leader in their living room, Jess lies before a poster of her sports hero, sometimes quietly confiding in it the dreams she feels she can’t share with her family.

Opportunity soon knocks in the form of Juliette (Knightley), who sees Jess’ dazzling ball work playing with some boys one day, and tells her coach (Meyers) about her.  She soon recruits Jess for a girls’ football team.  The two become fast friends and natural wonders on the field.  Yet Jess can’t bring herself to tell her parents the truth, and her life becomes a quasi-nightmare of close calls and covering up her tracks for as long as she can.  “What did I do in my past life to deserve this?” her mother moans.

But it can’t last forever.  When a key tournament with an American soccer league scout in the audience happens to take place on the day of her sister’s wedding (and anyone who’s seen Monsoon Wedding knows just how big a deal an Indian wedding can be), there is no more putting off the choice:  she must decide between being the daughter her parents want her to be and pursuing the dream that’s meant so much to her for most of her life.

Those are the key story points.  There are others, as I briefly touched on before, but most are merely sidetracks.  The real pleasure of the film is in the tried and true message, the liveliness of the screenplay by co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha, and the two appealing leads.  Keira Knightley has springboarded from the word of mouth success of this picture to the bona fide blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean.  It’s well deserved; she’s a delight.  If there’s any justice, though, Parminder Nagra will find equal future success.  She’s the true heart and soul of this picture, and a remarkable beauty as well.

So what if a lot of people in my country don’t know what ‘bend it’ is, or even who Beckham is apart from being Mr. Posh Spice?  It didn’t stop Bend it Like Beckham from quietly but strongly becoming the must-see film of 2003.  This movie is a warm, funny, good time…and a real kick in the grass.

Video ***1/2

This is a beautiful anamorphic transfer from Fox (a full frame version is also available).  It’s a colorful film, and the colors render quite expertly, with warm, natural tones and excellent containment throughout.  I’ve become convinced that there’s nothing so colorful as an Indian wedding, and by the time the picture’s climax rolls around, you’ll really appreciate the work that went into this DVD.  Images are generally sharp and clear and well detailed, with only a hint of softness here and there in the picture’s few and far between darker shots.  High marks.

Audio ***

The picture goes from being mostly dialogue-oriented to segueing into scenes of fast action and loud crowds.  The 5.1 mix handles it all well, with the .1 channel giving the terrific song score an extra boost (an Indian language version of Celine Dion’s/Air Supply’s “The Power of Love” is very nice).  If you find the accents a bit hard, just click on the subtitles and enjoy.

Features ****

This is a loaded disc!  For starters, you get a commentary with director Gurinder Chadha, which is a charming and enthusiastic listen.  There are 10 deleted or extended scenes, a good making-of featurette, a pair of international trailers, and an amusing featurette on cooking Aloo Gobi, along with a recipe for it.

Summary:

Bend it Like Beckham is this year’s little film that could.  It makes up for unoriginality with international flavor, humor and charm, and that’s a combination that turned this picture from a small, modest import into a national sensation.  This is simply a high kicking good time.