“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. Premiering at the Smith Opera House tonight.
Jess (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” will be screened at The Smith at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are just $3. In English, Hindi and Punjabi with subtitles, this film is rated PG-13. It has a running time of 93 minutes.