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Goal Tending 

Let's start off with an important admission. I am a sucker for sports movies. The formula varies only in tiny details, but I fall for it every time. The Longest Yard, Rocky, Hoosiers, The Natural, Rudy and a dozen others. Last pitch, swing, run, shot, punch. Triumph. Sometimes only personal, sometimes even in defeat. But always triumph. And there I am with a lump in my throat all over again. And sometimes the sports movie transcends the sport even as it exploits the formula. Think Peter Yates' wonderful Breaking Away, which is just as much about family and social class and self-esteem as it is about bicycle racing. Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham falls into this latter category, and I am the perfect audience for it.

Written by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, Bend It Like Beckham (the title derives from British superstar footballer David Beckham's ability to curve a soccer ball around the goalie and into the net) is the story of an English girl of Indian parentage whose soccer skills exceed those of any of the young men in her middle-class London neighborhood. Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (fresh-faced beauty Parminder K. Nagra) is an A student whose traditional Sikh parents expect her to become a doctor or lawyer some day. They also expect her to follow the example of her older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) by learning to cook proper Indian food and finding a good Indian boy to marry. Jess is not indifferent to her family's desires. But she really likes to play football.

And then cross-cultural opportunity comes knocking. Lanky blonde Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley), star forward for the London Harriers, studies Jess on the playground and decides that Jess is just what the Harriers need to make them competitive in European women's soccer tournaments. Jules arranges Jess a tryout with her coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), and everything is "brilliant" for the five minutes it takes Jess to discover that she'll have to play in standard uniform shorts rather than her usual pair of sweat pants. Proper Sikh girls don't show their legs in public.

And so begin the deceptions. Refused permission from her parents to play with the Harriers, Jess concocts a fake summer job that will explain her absences from home during practices and matches. (Don't ask about the money she should be bringing in.) A weekend "sleepover" with a girlfriend covers for a trip to Hamburg to take on a German team. And ultimately the potent passing and scoring combination of Jess and Jules attracts scouts from America bearing college scholarships and the possibility someday of competing on the American professional women's soccer circuit. Alas, Jess' sister is scheduled to get married on the very day at the very hour of the big tournament final where the American scouts are hoping to see her perform against Europe's best. And if that's not a penalty kick, I don't know what is.

The smart move in Chadha's script is keeping Mr. (Anupam Kher) and Mrs. (Shaheen Khan) Bhamra from becoming two-dimensional nitwits. The picture carefully establishes that both parents love their children deeply and have already adapted considerably toward letting them become modern English children. Both Pinky and Jess dress, talk and act like other English girls their age. Pinky's fiance is of Indian parentage, but theirs is a intense love match, not an arranged marriage. So even as Pinky seems to abide by established Sikh traditions, she does so on her own terms.

Equally important, Jess is not depicted as a rebellious child in any conventional sense. She respects her parents and understands that they love her even if they don't understand her passion for football. Here Chadha provides an analogue in Jules' mother (Juliet Stevenson in an hilarious turn) who also detests soccer and not so secretly suspects that her daughter's athleticism is largely a cover for lesbianism. In short, Bend It Like Beckham gets credit for respecting cultural diversity even as it promotes cultural change and individual freedom of choice.

This is not to say that the picture breaks any new narrative or thematic ground. The filmmakers probably had plenty enough on their plates without adding a disfiguring scar and certainly enough without concocting and then undercooking a romantic triangle. And then I can't help but wonder if some dumb preview audience scorecards led Chadha to keep things going one scene too long. Snip off the tidy bow of that neat happy ending and the film would have felt truer and far more resonant.

Still, the picture gets my enthusiastic endorsement. It has a big, open heart. It develops its characters in unusual depth for a sports movie (or most movies these days for that matter). And it introduces in young Miss Nagra a luminous new star. She is perky and charming with her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun ready for the soccer field. But when she lets that hair down, she's a knockout.


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