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Friday, March 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Delightful 'Bend it Like Beckham' mixes saris and soccer dreams

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review


***
"Bend It Like Beckham," with Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anupam Kher, Archie Panjabi, Shaheen Khan, Frank Harper, Juliet Stevenson. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, from a screenplay by Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual situations. Guild 45th.

"Bend It Like Beckham," Gurinder Chadha's delightful teen sports comedy that's been setting box-office records in its native Great Britain, is charm personified. The film sets out to make its audience happy — and, unlike so many "feel-good" movies, it actually succeeds. It's a little bit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a little bit "Billy Elliot," a little bit "Monsoon Wedding," and enormous fun.

Jess (lovely Parminder Nagra, spirited and loose in her film debut) is the younger daughter in a traditional Indian family living near Heathrow Airport, outside London. Life would seem to promise college, marriage and cooking chapati (bread), but Jess' dream is as shocking to her family as the young dancer Billy Elliot's was to his: She wants to be a professional soccer player, like her idol David Beckham. In the park near her home, Jess casually kicks a soccer ball around with the neighborhood boys, to the horror of her mother (Shaheen Khan) and wedding-crazed sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi). Meanwhile, her father (Anupam Kher) stares at the massive poster of Beckham in Jess' room with dismay. Who is "this bald man," he wonders? What could Jess possibly be thinking?

Enter Jules, real name Juliet (Keira Knightley, who looks like a British Winona Ryder), who plays in a women's soccer league and recruits Jess for her team. And cue the well-lit arrival of coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a blue-eyed, full-lipped dreamboat who's soon playing more than soccer in both Jules and Jess' fantasies.

It would have been easy for Chadha to turn her film into a sports-themed romance, but she achieves something infinitely rarer: a story about the joy that a young woman gets from a team sport — and from "bending" the ball in a perfect arc, right into the goal. Like all sports movies, "Bend It Like Beckham" has a Big Game moment, and Chadha gives this one a witty twist, setting it to the well-known epic loveliness of a Puccini aria and adding dream figures from Jess' family to the playing field, their bright saris floating in the wind.

That's perfectly appropriate, because this movie is as much about family as about playing a beloved game. Though the two women's relatives occasionally approach caricature — Jules' traditional mother (Juliet Stevenson), who works in a lingerie store, frets that "there's a reason Sporty Spice is the only one without a fellow" — they're portrayed with generosity and warm humor, even love.

And Chadha's eye shows us, rather than tells us, of the isolation felt by the Indian community in which Jess lives. In one scene, with a colorful backyard party celebrating Pinky's engagement, the camera pulls farther and farther away, showing what looks like an island of swirling yellows and pinks in a sea of plain gray.

"Bend It Like Beckham" could be fairly accused of being formulaic, and its screenplay contains perhaps a few too many confrontations (there's one with Jules' mother, very late in the movie, that just feels wrong), but these flaws pale beside the simple joy this film generates. Chadha's created something magical; an atmosphere of happiness and hope, in which we could all bend a ball like Beckham — or like Jess.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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