BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM

PG-13

-By Doris Toumarkine


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Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has cobbled together funding from a wide variety of U.K. and German sources to fashion a joyous tale of coming of age, assimilation and family conflicts within a middle-class Anglo-Indian family in London. Recalling the vitality and style of Monsoon Wedding, the faintly exotic characters and themes of My Beautiful Laundrette (although homosexuality threatens to be but is not the issue here), and even the hilarious parental ethnocentric myopia and mania of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham is another upbeat, immigrant-themed entry for the specialized arena, with some deserved strong reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth critical to momentum.

One even suspects that a big fat initial outreach to the Indian community, similar to what IFC did with its history maker when it first targeted the Greek-American community, might be a smart marketing strategy, although Bend It, unlike Greek Wedding, is foreign times two, with no potential for crossover.

A hit in its native country, the film--acquired at Cannes, seen at Toronto and Sundance, winner of several fest audience awards and a recent nominee for the Alexander Korda British Film of the Year award--focuses on Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), a college-bound Londoner and soccer fanatic who lives in a strict family of proud and prospering Indian immigrants. Unlike elder sis Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who works at nearby Heathrow Airport and has delighted the parents (Anumpam Kher and Shaheen Khan) with her wedding plans, Jess is a problem: She is still awaiting acceptance to begin her law studies, but, worse, she's a rabid soccer fan who loves the gear and sneaks off to play with the neighborhood guys. Her parents hope she'll become engaged to Tony (Ameet Chana) but he's just a pal who eventually comes out as gay.

Soon Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a part-time bartender who coaches a women's soccer team, recognizes Jess' talent, after being tipped off by young soccer fanatic Jules (Keira Knightley), and recruits her for his team. Jess must keep this activity secret from her harsh parents, who want their daughter to dress feminine and marry Indian. Stooping to subterfuge, Jess becomes a key player in the amateur team and becomes a close friend of Jules, whose brassy, ultra-feminine and caring mother Paula (Juliet Stevenson) is appalled by her daughter's involvement in soccer. Worse, Paula is sure Jess and Jules are involved in a lesbian relationship.

Not so, but Paula's suspicions allow for some humorous moments. Rather, Jess and coach Joe become an item, while Jules, who also has eyes for Joe, grows estranged from her good friend. Further drama ensues when a professional soccer scout from the States shows up for a game that conflicts with Jess' obligation to attend sis Pinky's wedding. Ultimately, as a film like this dictates, all becomes right as rain. And, as slaves to the genre when it's done well, we demand nothing less.

Chadha, whose debut feature was the critically acclaimed Bhaji on the Beach, delivers a charming, visually dazzling work here. Her insistence on red in almost every scene is hardly a conceit; the palette throughout, the snazzy cutting that propels the story and game footage, and a pounding music-track masala of ethnic and pop tunes all contribute to a spunky style that meshes perfectly with the engaging and light-as-Indian-bread content and tone.

The film could have benefited from a better title (Beckham refers to the soccer star Jess worships) and more convincing footage of the gifted athlete heroine at play. But these are minor shortcomings in a film that otherwise scores on all production fronts (including some spiffy montages) and offers terrific performances, including a delicious comic turn from vet Brit actress Stevenson as the traditional mom fearing the worst of her soccer-playing daughter. As that daughter, relative newcomer Keira Knightley's model good looks and assured performance suggest that Hollywood, if not an American soccer team, will be scouting.

--Doris Toumarkine


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