Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) is a hip, English Indian teenager living under the control of her feverishly traditional parents. Stuck in a life that she doesn't want, Jess dreams of playing soccer with her idol, English soccer superstar David Beckham. Faced with the onslaught of her sister's upcoming nuptials, Jess is offered a chance to play with a local female soccer team. Thrilled with the opportunity, but fearful of her parents' disapproving wrath, Jess lies her way into a chance to play for the team, which is lead by a charming male coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, "Velvet Goldmine"). As Jess' deceptions add up, and the thumb of her parents presses down hard, she must decided for the first time in her life what is best for her future, and chase after it without looking back.
"Bend it Like Beckham" (IMDb listing) is filled with terrific ideas that are trapped in a picture that doesn't have the time to fully develop any of them. Playing off the success of Mia Hamm, and the rise of female professional soccer leagues, "Beckham" is a classy change of pace in the traditional sports film arena. But "Beckham" is also a teen lust picture, a meditation on the contrasting nature of traditional Indian customs in England, and, eventually, a wedding film (shades of last year's smash "Monsoon Wedding"). There is just so much to "Beckham" that the film suffers as a result. This is a bright, winning motion picture, but you come out of the theater exhausted, not cheering the accomplishments of the characters, but feeling lucky you made it out alive.
Writer/director Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji on the Beach") undoubtedly has a passion for her characters, as most are written with a disarming three-dimensional quality. But to make her bigger points, she runs these people through the gauntlet of emotions, without overseeing one thought to its conclusion. The Jess character gets the worst of it, as she must deal with her parent's constant disapproval of her sport, paired with an insistence that she follow strict Indian routines for life and love. She's also caught in a love triangle with her coach and her best friend (brightly played by Keira Knightley), with whom some of her neighbors and family members suspect her of engaging in lesbian practices (which is a nice touch to address common misconceptions about the sport's athletes, but handled in a crude, "Three's Company" misunderstanding way). To top it all off, she's worried about an American soccer scout who will arrive at any minute to watch her play. It's an ocean of dramatic distance to cover, and with only 100 minutes to do it in. Chadha fashions a herky-jerky, ADD style to the picture. Rarely is anything allowed to sink in.
All this dramatic uneasiness is made palatable by the lead performance from Parminder Nagra. Sensational with anything Chadha throws at her, Nagra makes the dramatic burdens of "Beckham" seem like kitten play. She shows off the true conflicted nature of a stymied teen, complete with a delightful slack-jawed bewilderment at all the attention directed at her. The only limitation placed on the actress is the episodic nature of the picture. You can see Nagra creating a character true to life, and that's a serious achievement. She has a big career ahead of her.
I really wanted to love "Bend it Like Beckham," but every time the film switched gears without warning, my patience began to run out. While this is far from a poorly made film, it's one that is more suited for a sharper, smaller focus.
Filmfodder Grade: C+