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Girls With Balls

Gurinder Chadha scores with a sporty crowd-pleaser

It was only in 1967 that Great Britain struck from its jurisprudence the "common scold," essentially a crime of catty insolence for which the convicted party -- almost always a woman disturbing the peace by nagging a man -- was punished with a public ducking into cold water. Nobody likes a bitch, but that's arguably kinda oppressive. Consider the lingering sexist residue of the culture that came up with that one. Then consider being ensconced in it in the present day as a girl from an immigrant family that's already steeped in a patriarchal tradition. Complicating matters, imagine wanting to play football -- that boy's game that Americans mistakenly call "soccer" -- with nearly uncontainable passion. Et voilà, this is the context of Gurinder Chadha's bright, lively and liberating movie Bend It Like Beckham.

There's nothing particularly petulant about Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (young Parminder Nagra, in her elegantly modulated feature debut), but her unprecedented sports jones profoundly disturbs the peace of her orthodox Sikh mother and father (Shaheen Khan and Anupam Kher, respectively). Now that "kick-ass girls" are a dime a million, Chadha (with fellow screenwriters Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges) wisely paints her main character as an earnest young lady who is driven to strut her stuff in, and on, a traditionally male field. Indeed, the Kenya-born, West London-raised Indian filmmaker calls her self-assertive movie autobiographical, if perhaps somewhat metaphorically. Although the plotting is meticulously formulaic, Chadha's personal passion for Jess' struggle generates inescapable good vibes all the way through the party-rockin' end-credit montage.

Because world football isn't the all-encompassing religion stateside that it is in Britain and practically everywhere else, the title can be rendered more Yank-friendly if you first think of it as Dunk It Like Shaq. Same idea. Here, however, the eponymous real-life footballer is David "Golden Balls" Beckham, top star of the Manchester United football club, husband of the least freakish Spice Girl and obvious lover of life. (Anyone married to Posh Spice who doesn't occasionally wear her panties should be certified.) This man with his patented strategy of "bending" the ball is Jess' hero, and her bedroom is a shrine to his magnificence, where she confides in a poster of him as if he's her best friend.

Although she knows how to put on a sari, Jess is the tomboy of the family, standing in marked contrast to her girlie older sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), whose imminent marriage to another proper Indian becomes the family's top priority. To let off steam, Jess covertly scrimmages in the park with her male friends, including one who could be known as popular cinema's obligatory gay sidekick number 53,741. Soon enough, Jess's obvious gift for the game is spotted by young Juliette "Jules" Paxton (major up-and-comer Keira Knightley), a white girl who invites her to try out for her all-girl football team. Because the coach is the sexy, Irish, emotionally burdened Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of Velvet Goldmine and the BBC's Gormenghast, almost unrecognizable as a normal human being), light lessons about love, loyalty, friendship and sportswomanship are guaranteed.

Beckham, the UK's top British-financed box-office champ, is without question a carefully designed feel-good machine, but don't hold that against it. Positive comparisons abound, from the youth-against-adversity paeans of Billy Elliot and Our Song to the jolly kicks of The Mighty Ducks or Fast Break (really) to unabashed ethnic celebrations such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which pretty much paralleled this project in production and initial release). Perhaps, like Nia Vardalos' father in Greek Wedding, Jess' mother is a bit too cartoony about her heritage. And maybe the jarring sports montages are a little routine. But otherwise the movie fairly rocks while offering undeniable moments of poignancy.

Of course, Chadha -- whose delightful and emotionally intricate Bhaji on the Beach and What's Cooking? didn't skimp on food references -- here lays on the aloo gobi pretty thick. Her sensualist tactics work, though, and audiences whose primary exposure to Indian culture consists of laughing at The Simpsons' Apu should enjoy these enlightening and scintillating glimpses. Wisely and with great comic verve, the writers contrast the Bhamra family with Jules' extremely white parents (Juliet Stevenson and Frank Harper), and the giddy cultural (and sexual) faux pas are truly tickling.

To nitpick, the fetishistic locker-room shots of the underage girls are as peculiar as those of the boys in Powder or Apt Pupil, and the team's turning-point match in Hamburg zips by too blithely to have much impact. Otherwise, this movie succeeds completely on its own terms as intrepid Jess and Jules eventually set their sights on conquering America. (Careful with your newfound freedom, girls: That common-scold law is literally still on the books here.) Chadha's work oozes with compassion, charm and the power of compromise, and on a planet screwed up by enormous cultural ignorance, she's both an artist and a heroine. The tip-off to this comes early in the film, when a sportscaster in a fantasy sequence inquires, "Could Jess be the answer to England's prayers?" It might not be too outlandish to suggest that she's a reasonable answer to the whole world's.

 
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