Bend It Like Beckham

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
112 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Gurinder Chadha. Cast: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Shaznay Lewis, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Juliet Stevenson.

All film distributors--especially the independent ones--now pine for the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a sleeper hit wielding gentle comedy and big emotion. Fox Searchlight Pictures may have what they're looking for in Bend It Like Beckham, a feel-good British import (and, indeed, a blockbuster in the U.K.) that plays a bit like The Full Monty crossed with Monsoon Wedding.

Though Fox may fret about that obscure title (referring to champion Manchester United footballer David Beckham), Bend It Like Beckham is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, which had the audience with which I saw it--on cue--whooping, "aww"-ing, laughing, and groaning in delight.

Magnetic newcomer Parminder K. Nagra plays Jess Bhamra, a teenage girl who lives for soccer and worships Beckham. In an overboard conceit, Jess actually speaks to Beckham--in her shrine-like bedroom--as if she is praying. Jess's problem--other than her unanswered prayers, is that her Punjabi Sikh family disapproves of her soccer dreams, seeing them as hopeless and flighty. Nevertheless, Jess's new friend Jules (Keira Knightley) seduces Jess into joining a girls team. Further complicating matters: both Jules and Jess have a thing for their cutie coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), whose busted knee ended his own grass dreams.

At first, I found Bend It Like Beckham bland, familiar, and shrill in its family dynamics and overplaying of cultural complication. As Mr. Bhamra, Anupam Kher's hurt reticence to participate in the community rings true, but Shaheen Khan makes a typically caricaturish disapproving mother. Juliet Stevenson also shows up as a blithely insensitive, nagging mum (sadly, now her stock in trade), who mistakenly believes football has made her daughter a lesbian. But as Jess says, "It's just culture, that's all," and the film has other--if equally clichéd--cards to play in its underdog sports story and puppy-love-triangle romance.

Contrivances aside, Beckham comes alive with its football scenes (that's soccer for you Yanks), and Nagra, Knightley, and Rhys-Meyers make a likeable trio. High points include the farcical machinations of the lesbian subplot, the climactic conflict of a colorful Indian wedding day set against a football-final (complete with American scout), and a series of unexpectedly tender dialogues between the sensitive Irish coach and Jess, his star player. Plus, Bay Area audiences can cheer the big cameo appearance of a local institution: Santa Clara University.

Alongside last year's Real Women Have Curves, Bend It Like Beckham makes prime, positive entertainment for 'tween and teen girls, and a pleasant-enough diversion for the rest of us. Though every plot point is too neatly resolved, this film is difficult to resist and harder to dislike.

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