Everything in our favor was against us

The pressure of soccer, family and immigrant identity in today’s England

Gabriel Shapiro

There are some themes that seem to have been done to death. In the case of teen oriented movies this is all the more true. Yet in her film “Bend It Like Beckham,” director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha introduces enough fresh bits into this newest twist on the coming-of-age comedy/drama to keep the hounds of formulaic staleness at bay.

The story follows Jeswinder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), the younger of two daughters in a family of Punjabi Sikh immigrants to England who has grown up watching soccer and has become quite a talented player. “Bend It Like Beckham” follows Jess as she tries to stake out her own identity, negotiating between the expectations of different cultures, different desires and conflicting allegiances.

Having been brought up by a strict mother bent on instilling her daughter with a strong sense of what she might call “Indian-ness,” Jess is supposed to act like her mother believes good Indian girls act: study hard, learn to cook, do as she’s told and daydream longingly of the day she’ll be married. She is definitely not supposed to play soccer, hang out with girl-jocks, fall in love with white boys or do anything that might call her femininity, sexuality or chastity into question for any reason.

Add on to all of this occasionally less-than-tolerant English people, and you have a sort of cultural, emotional quicksand that Jess already feels she’s sinking in by the time her parents find out she’s joined a girl’s soccer team behind their backs. That’s around the same time she discovers she’s fallen in love with her coach, an Irish former Premier League hopeful who, through injury, has been reluctantly relegated to coaching girls’ ball.

The identity that Jess’ community is portrayed as promoting through sheer force of will and willful ignorance is one in which all the girls are chaste, the boys are straight, the parents are pillars of strength and wisdom and traditions are upheld at every turn. There is, conversely, the reality of immigrant life in which there is intermixing of cultures, not to mention of people in romantic affairs, and this isn’t lost on Jess’ parents. They simply choose to ignore it wherever possible. Jess’ sister, her mother’s “perfect Indian daughter,” has been sleeping with her boyfriend for a long time, believing her parents didn’t know, but in fact they’ve known and chosen to look the other way in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to admit it.

A number of issues are dealt with in a similar spirit of frankness, some more unique to immigrants, and others more generally related to being young and growing up. Jess’ teammate Jules’ (Keira Knightley) mother is convinced that, given that Jules wears warm-ups and is more interested in soccer than boys, she must be a lesbian. This leads to a funny exchange when, after confronting Jules and Jess about the relationship she believes they are having, Jules’ mother goes into a brief Seinfeldian not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that style speech once Jules has sufficiently convinced her that she is straight.

Though Parminder Nagra’s excellent performance as the lead is the standout, fans of Bollywood might be more excited to see an unusually subdued Anupam Kher in his first English language feature. He is a frequent sidekick and funnyman in recent blockbusters such as “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” “Mohabbatein,” and India’s longest running movie, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.”

For the true Yanks among our readers, the title “Bend it like Beckham” refers to English Premier League superstar David Beckham of Manchester United and his ability to put a great deal of spin on balls from set pieces (corner kicks and penalties) so as to ‘bend’ the ball around the defenders and goalie.

“Bend It Like Beckham” rated PG-13. Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Starring Parminder K. Nagra, Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Opens Friday, March 28 at the Uptown Theater.

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]