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It seems surreal to remember that I had to be dragged to go see Bend It Like Beckham when it hit theaters in Canada back in 2003. Let’s be clear: I do not particularly like the sports. I do not understand the sports, nor why people get so excited about sports. And so, quite honestly, a film about two teenage girls striving to be the best at soccer did not seem like a fun way to spend an afternoon as a surly 13-year-old who probably wanted to see Ashton Kutcher romance Brittany Murphy in Just Married for the third time.
Obviously, I was dead wrong. There is no such thing as a perfect movie, but Gurinder Chadha’s film comes damn close. With mass critical acclaim, the film grossed $76 million dollars on a $6 million budget. Seventeen years after its U.S. release, it’s still astoundingly relevant, and never more so than now, in the aftermath of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Bend It Like Beckham was ahead of its time in almost every way. It’s hard to think of another film that portrays women’s soccer as part of the main story arc. There’s Bridget’s (Blake Lively) emotionally fraught trip to soccer camp in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants, and Viola’s (Amanda Bynes) gender-flip to play on the boy’s team in She’s The Man, but as far as mainstream movies go, that’s pretty much it. BILB was also co-written by two women of color — Guljit Bindra and Chadha, who also directed — and features a woman of Indian descent as the lead, with issues of immigration, identity, and gender at the forefront of the narrative. So, even if you find sports to be hive-inducing, Bend It Like Beckham is worth a rewatch. (Or, if you missed it the first time around, a first watch, in which case lucky you!)
Parminder Nagra (Birdbox, Five Feet Apart) plays 18-year-old Jasminder “Jess” Bhamra, the daughter of Punjabi Sikh immigrants living with her family in the London suburb of Hounslow. But while sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) is busy planning her wedding and following the expectations of their community, Jess dreams of playing soccer, like her idol, David Beckham. (The title of the movie, I am told, refers to Beckham’s ability to kick the ball in a creative and difficult manner, but again, sports confound me!) She faces obstacles at every turn: Her family, on the one hand, who don’t understand Jess’ devotion to what they conceive of as a frivolous, childish pastime, but also a misogynistic system that keeps women players on the sidelines.
Jess mostly plays on the sly with her guy friends in the park, where she meets Juliette “Jules” Paxton (Keira Knightley, in her breakout role). A fellow soccer fanatic, Jules fought for the creation of a local girl’s team, and now plays for The Hounslow Harriers, coached by the very attractive Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). She’s noticed Jess’ talent and invites her to try out, while introducing her to new idols: Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Abby Wambach, stars of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Determined to play, Jess lies to her parents about a summer job, and struggles to balance familial obligations with her rising stardom on the team. But when Joe breaks the news that an American scout may be coming to their final game, Jess is faced with a choice: Make her family happy, or follow her dreams. To up the stakes even more, the game just so happens to coincide with her sister’s wedding.
There’s so much to love about this movie. First off, the casting: a fresh-faced 17-year-old Knightley, truly magnetic in every single second of this film; a deliciously vapid pre-The Good Wife Panjabi, who almost murders her bridesmaid for buying the blue contacts she was planning on wearing to her engagement party; a devastatingly handsome Rhys-Meyers making hearts swoon with his lilting Irish brogue!
Despite being specific in its portrayal of a Hounslow-based Punjabi Sikh community, the issues covered in Bend It Like Beckham feel universal. As the daughter of Morrocan Jewish immigrants to Canada who had to spend every other Saturday afternoon drinking copious amounts of mint tea at my great-grandmother’s house, and missed many birthday parties in the process, I related to the pressures faced by Jess as she tried to navigate customs and traditions brought over from the motherland, while feeling the pull of assimilation from her new friends.
Still, her family isn’t stereotyped. Anupam Kher gives a heartrending performance as Mr. Bhamra, whose strict rules about his daughter’s conduct are shown to steep from a desire to spare her the humiliation and discrimination he endured as a young man. For all her wailing about Jess’ inability to cook aloo gobi, Mrs. Bhamra (Shaheen Khan) is frightened about her daughter venturing onto a path that might leave her alone, and without the things she’s been taught to value. It’s the strange irony of immigration that parents often come to a country in search of a better life for their children, only to fear the slow erosion of their culture as those same children opt for the customs of their adopted land. Bend It Like Beckham uses soccer to tell that story in an engaging and emotional way.
Plus, for those of us that know nothing about soccer, there’s a very helpful scene of Jules’ dad (Frank Harper) explaining strategy to her frilly mom (Juliet Stevenson) with the help of sea salt and mustard.
The film also features the most perfect club scene known to man, in which Knightley rocks a truly fabulous flimsy triangle crop top. It’s actually a little jarring to see her wearing such modern clothing — wherefore art thou corset? The actress has said that she avoids films set in modern day because “the female characters nearly always get raped.” But it’s no coincidence. Bend It Like Beckham is strikingly modern in its treatment of its female protagonists. Yes, there is a brief love triangle moment when Jules walks in on Jess and Joe on the brink of an embrace. But never does that come before their love of the sport they’ve devoted their lives to, nor is there any question of Jess picking Joe over her family. Likewise, Jules’ mom’s belief that her daughter is a lesbian isn’t so much played for laughs as it is to prove a point about how we perceive women who refuse to conform to preconceived notions about womanhood.
One of the most interesting details in Bend It Like Beckham is the set design choices in Jess and Jules’ rooms. While the former’s walls are plastered with posters of David Beckham and other star male players, the latter has posters of women players from all over the world. Allowed to let her ambitions flourish, Jules has been able to dream bigger and imagine herself playing on a world stage. Jess, on the other hand, has had to fight just to play soccer in her yard, let alone America. She admired men almost by default, because she didn’t see herself represented. And sports fan or not, that’s a message we can all relate to.