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doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000293350.48962.e2
Department: Turrisi Takes on the Movies

‘Bend It Like Beckham’




Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightly, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Written by Gurinder Chadha, Paul Meyeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra. Directed by Gurinder Chadha

Unless you are a soccer aficionado, you may not get the title of this movie, and that is sad because it is such a terrific and uplifting story.

David Beckham is a renowned bald British footballer, who happened to have wed Posh Spice of the distantly remembered Spice Girls. The title term “bend it” takes on double entendre in this film, but it refers to an ability to kick a soccer ball in a curvilinear controlled line.

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Game of Life

While this movie is superficially about soccer, it is more about the game of life, and how it is started and played. The culture, and what one we spring from, plays pivotal roles. Sometimes our parents think we are hard-wired for traditional roles.

This movie is very light and funny, but it touches on heavy and profound themes about coming of age, sexual identities (and misidentifications), stereotyping and bias, parental expectations, and finding the proper niche for each.

The conflicts are between parental visions for the future and happiness, more colored by culture and religion, versus the bright and limitless view of those “un-bent” by society's pliers, but the conflict creates humor and touches on timeless truths.

Immigrants and those in a non-dominant culture have a particular perspective to see the larger culture with more clarity than those raised from it as well as in it.

“Jess” (Parminder K. Nagra) is nuts about football and decks her room out as a shrine to Beckham. At home she is the dutiful second daughter, Jesminder, in a Sikh Punjabi family marooned under the flight patterns to Heathrow airport.

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Introspective Monologues

In her bedroom, decked out with soccer posters and “Beckham-iana,” she utters profound introspective meditative monologues with her bald guru listening her quiet temple. My college-aged adolescent has Josh Hartnett and Incubus posters, but I don't get to hear her inner thoughts or meditations.

In the Bhamra family's living room is a temple too: a portrait of a Baba-ji oversees all that goes on in this Hindu sanctuary. I enjoyed them praying before the image of the wise man as her scores for law school admission arrived. It reminded me of the Catholic practice of lighting votive lights before the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin Mary to pay and pray for intercession for a desired event.

Somehow to Catholics this seems pious and mainstream, but they would find the devotion before a Baba-ji picture a strange and pagan ritual. While the profundities of the faith are heartfelt for each, the practices are culturally significant, and the other one seems odd to the non-believer.

Jess's parents are culturally Indian, but expatriate from Nairobi, where dad was not a bad footballer and cricket player. However, when they moved to the London suburb, Hounslow, closer to Heathrow Airport, Mr. Bhamra's sporting life was over—the Brits do not want a dark-skinned, turbaned Indian on their football club or playing cricket.

Jess is a talented, bright, and hip teen who plays soccer in the park with her Indian friends. She is tolerant and respectful to her overbearing parents, who are clueless about her athletic prowess. To every adolescent parents are clueless, but the conflict arises from her guileless position between her seemingly innate talent and her birth into a family that will have no value for it.

She always plays in a long-legged track outfit. Of course her Indian male and female mates are keenly aware of how good she is, but none are as impressed as Juliet Paxton, or “Jules” (Keira Knightly), an equally soccer-mad young lady, locally raised and thoroughly pale-skinned English.



Jules and Jess are an attractive pair of adolescent girls, who seem to see possibilities and different paths, especially on soccer fields, more readily than their parents. While they are on the edge of adult life and living in the same British community with thoroughly “brilliant” points of view, they may as well have come from different planets.

Jules has a boyishly short haircut and androgynous appeal, bending gender as well as Beckham can curve a kick. Jules' dad helps her find her game, but mom wants her to enhance her Lolita-like bust with a proper inflatable insert or “uplift” bra rather than a sports bra—larger breasts provide no advantage in football.

Jules is blind to her attractiveness as a young lady, and much more focused on being a brilliant performer on the field. Jess can outplay any boy in the park with her deft moves, fancy footwork, and speed.

Her folks are focused on her sister's wedding and hope that Jess can learn to cook a proper Indian meal. Running around half-naked in front of boys is no way for a good Indian girl to behave.

Jules, knowing her athletic talent and with athletic supremacy for the team on her mind, virtually stalks her to try out for the newly formed girls soccer team, the Hounslow Harriers.

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Soccer as Tableau for Many Conflicts

The soccer squad offers the tableau for many conflicts. The team sticks together as a polyglot of skin tones with transparent-skinned British girls on the same footing with a black girl and Jess and Jules.

The coach, Joe, is a tough taskmaster and a good-looking Irishman, who has survived a difficult parent himself and suffered a career-ending knee injury.

The story could almost be that of the artist playing the role. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was in the gender-bending Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes' movie about glam-rock.

Rhys-Meyers was born in Dublin as John O'Keefe, abandoned by his father, and raised in an orphanage. He has a brooding injured youthful appearance, looking younger than his 25 years.

Jules pals with him, and he and Jess seem drawn to each other, especially after he coaxes her to wear shorts instead of her jogging suit and they share embarrassments and bonding about scars and injuries.

The tension of a triangle of love interest fuels the dominant movie subplot. The relationship between Jules and Jess provides a model for a healthy interaction of girl chums on a soccer club. They are mutually attractive and able in their own right but choose to enhance each other by playing ball rather than competing, until the love interest with Joe, perhaps initially subconscious with Jules and tentative and surprising to Jess, shatters the tranquility and balance that friendship provides.

Many misunderstand, but they can depend on each other, they have a mutual goal, and a mutual enemy— clueless parents with their own agenda for the girls, and a brutal parental history for Joe.

The story line and writing come from Gurinder Chadha, the director and co-writer of the screenplay. She grew up in an immigrant family like Jesminder's, and undoubtedly some of the feeling and the cultural edge have the ring of veracity about them because of her experience.

The pull of cultures is sharply drawn by the movie's scenes. Many of Jess's Indian contemporaries are more British now than Indian, but they continue to feel the barb of discrimination. The children of immigrants want to assimilate and yet are traitors if they leave the mother culture behind.

They can trade au courant street lingo and speak the local accent as a native, but also know the proper respectful Hindi gestures of respect and correct greeting of elders.

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Longstanding Battle

Immigrants and their offspring have had this battle as long as there have been dominant cultures that allow outsiders in for whatever purpose.

Gangs of New York offered a glimpse of how warmly Irish immigrants were embraced by the nativists' 18th century. If Jack the butcher didn't get you, they would also offer employment in the federal army with stacks of coffins from the last lot that accepted the bargain.

Distinguishing habits that need to be suppressed from the new culture, for the Bhamra clan, soccer seemed more dangerous than necking in the airport parking lot.

What cultural remnants from the motherland are worth preserving—the mixed blessing of strong and domineering family and extended community to observe and offer whistle blowing unsolicited advice.

Watchful neighbors report that Jess is kissing an English boy when the reality is that she was listening to intimate whispers from Jules, who was mistaken for a boy.

It's not only the immigrants and their children who are confused. Jules' parents, the Paxtons (played marvelously by Frank Harper and Juliet Stevenson), are as numb and blinded by their own realities as the Bhamras are to theirs. Jules' dad, Alan, is delighted that she prefers football to boys, but mum can't interest Jules with femininity, and she fears that her tomboy might be in love with Jess.

The girls have no sexual attraction to each other, but parental confusion reigns, and the communication is never checked out.

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Soccer Brings Family Values into Focus

Soccer brings family values into focus, and reminds us parents that children have lives to lead and that they are not here to fulfill vicariously our own disappointments and regrets.

The parents ultimately make choices that will leave you laughing and tearful with joy that they may at least see a light without losing it all.

Some have found the story a bit formulaic, but the magic comes from the cast that seems to get it. The credits scroll with a look at those behind the camera, and while I'm sure this was work, they seemed very much to be having fun.

The character of Jess as portrayed by Parminder Nagra is magical. She emotes the enthusiasm for life that we each would want our daughters to have. She has boundless optimism and endless ability to see the possibilities within impossible situations. She has a sense of justice and courage in the face of adversity and injury, physical and emotional.

She is heroic, and we know she will find success somehow, even if she should fail temporarily.

You really should not miss this one, unless your heart has turned to stone, or you think that the parents and authority are always right. If your mind is a teeny bit open, this movie will fill it with wonderment and joy. See it with someone from a different culture, like your teen.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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