March 11, 2003

Goal!!! Bridging cultural gaps with a soccer sensation

Football--soccer for you yanks--has created disciples across the world that have millions of stories to tell; however, rarely does such a story break into American film. Bend it Like Beckham is a British film, but Fox Searchlight has decided to release it in the U.S. That being said, it addresses some contemporary issues in a light and playful manner. It is funny and serious, overall an enjoyable experience.

Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) is an 18-year-old English girl with a knack for football--not, as her parents wished, any natural talent for preparing a full Indian dinner. So the story pits young Jess against her traditionalist parents. To add to the mix, her sister is desperately seeking a fine Indian husband, and Jess herself has fallen for her coach. The story lines weave in and out, but the ultimate conflict is always between Jess and her parents.

Jess's friend and teammate, Jules (Keira Knightley), is first seen with her mother shopping for underwear. While I myself never had the experience of buying my first bra, this scene for some reason suggested that sort of awkwardness. Her mother, a full-figured blonde, seems to think that a lacy push-up bra would be best, while Jules is more interested in the athletic tops. Jules initially comes across as a loner, and so when she stumbles across Jess playing football in the park, we think that Jess will become a role model and guide Jules through the difficulties of adolescence. This is completely wrong.

In the relationship between the two girls, Jules would be considered the leader. She introduces Jess to all the fine aspects of life: organized football, clubbing, a touch of rebelliousness, and even English boys. They do, however, encounter some difficulties when both girls fall for their coach. Since Jess is the main character it follows that the coach falls for her, but that doesn't mean that Jules will go down without a fight. By the end of the film, they have reconciled their differences, and Jules, as any supporting character ought to do, lets Jess have the coach.

Jules's parents, Alan and Paula, are wonderfully played by Frank Harper and Juliet Stevenson. Her dad encourages her to play; he practices with her at home, he goes to her games. Like any stereotypical English man, football is his life. Though he didn't have a son, with women's sports growing so quickly, a daughter now serves him the same purpose. Paula is somewhat different. She does not know the rules of the game, and she does not support her daughter in this particular endeavor. Alan, at least more so than Paula, lives vicariously through Jules.

Jess's parents are more critical to the plot, being her primary source of conflict. For the most part, her father simply nods along with what her mother says, which usually focuses on marriage, family, or some other aspect of domestic life. Jess has a sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who lives her mother's dream of marriage and a life of cooking Indian food. The interactions of the Bhamra family are fascinating: while tradition would dictate that the father is the head of the house, a position that he on occasion claims, the mother does most of the decision making. Pinky comes across as fake in that she is trendy with her friends and traditional at home, but her parents seem to buy it, and they prefer her to Jess. The father is more sympathetic to Jess's football, but since he doesn't make decisions, it doesn't matter.

Throughout the film, I could not stop thinking about this movie and the American "soccer mom." But the parents in the movie could not be further from that idea: there are no minivans, no fights in the stands, no yelling at kids, and certainly no encouragement. It's pleasant to watch football without having yelling parents, each one of whom is completely convinced of three things: first, that his or her child is the best player on the field; second, that he or she knows all of the rules and strategies; and third, that it is the duty of each parent to inform the players of these tactics and rules. The idea that ignorance is bliss applies here, though it's someone else's ignorance and my bliss.

While football is known as the sport of the world, it seems that women's football is most prominent in America. Jules's dream is to play professionally in America, which seems odd. Most male players leave America to play in Europe; women's football is different. Ever since Brandi Chastain sans jersey graced the cover of millions of magazines, there's been a connection between women's football and America. And that connection continues here in a similar fashion.