Pick of the Week: BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM

Exactly what it sounds like, the Pick of the Week column is written up by the Cinapse team on rotation, focusing on films that are past the marketing cycle of either their theatrical release or their home video release. So maybe the pick of the week will be only a couple of years old. Or maybe it’ll be a silent film, cult classic, or forgotten gem. Cinapse is all about thoughtfully advocating film, new and old, and celebrating what we love no matter how marketable that may be. So join us as we share about what we’re discovering, and hopefully you’ll find some new films for your watch list, or some new validation that others out there love what you love too! Engage with us in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook! And now, our Cinapse Movie Of The Week…

Here at Cinapse we cover a lot of Serious Movies ™ as well as lots of more obscure titles, particularly horror or action. So for my pick of the week, I’m happy to shake things up a bit with a slightly more mainstream (in that you may have actually heard of it), upbeat, fun selection — 2002’s Bend it Like Beckham.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance here. Bend it Like Beckham brings up and is even centered around some very important themes. Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) is the younger of two daughters in a traditional Indian family living in England. She can’t cook, but she CAN kick the ass of the neighborhood boys at soccer in the local park (sorry, Brits/every other country, it just feels weird for me to use “football”). It’s there that she encounters Jules (Keira Knightley), who recognizes her talent and invites her to try out for the local girls’ club team she plays for, the Hounslow Harriers. Despite her lack of formal experience and not even owning a proper pair of “boots” (did I mention I don’t know soccer??), Jess impresses coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and joins the team, assuring him that her parents are on board. As you might imagine, this is not the case, and the rest of the film centers around Jess’ machinations to follow her dream by secretly playing soccer, while also dealing with the fallout of her actions and the effects on both her and her family.

Again, let me emphasize that this is a fun movie. I guess you would call it a comedy, though laughs aren’t the point — despite a few funny moments, the “comedy” is more about the foibles of family. At its heart, Bend it Like Beckham is a coming of age story. (And no, you don’t have to be a soccer fan to appreciate it.) It’s about cultural and gender-based expectations, and the conflict between satisfying your family and living your own life. It’s even about race, body image, and defining your sexuality (I won’t cover the would-be lesbian angle here — The Toast and plenty of other sites have already done so). And though the ending is WAY to good to be true, it’s nice to think about someday getting to a world where the ending could happen.

But let’s rewind and talk about the various expectations here. Jess is dealing with both cultural and gender-based expectations, though many of the latter are based on the former. She exists in a cultural/generational mish-mash, where the adults wear “traditional” attire but the youngsters follow the “secular” British styles on a day-to-day basis, only wearing traditional dress on more formal occasions, like Jess’ sister Pinky’s engagement party. Pinky’s love match engagement to a proper Indian fiancé and impending wedding are another major theme here, unfolding alongside Jess’ burgeoning soccer ambitions — bad timing for Jess, who is now being held to a higher standard lest her actions reflect badly on Pinky or the family. Consequences of this include both Jess’ new lessons in traditional Indian cooking, her mother insisting no family will want a sporty girl who can’t cook, and her father’s insistence that she give up soccer altogether. “You must start behaving like a proper woman,” he insists. Jess is understandably frustrated that the term “proper woman” seems to apply to Pinky, who has been sneaking out for years to bone her then-boyfriend-now-fiancé, but doesn’t apply to Jess, the smart, “good” daughter who just happens to like to play sports.

Meanwhile, Jules isn’t immune to gender-based expectations, either. Her “girly-girl” mom can’t comprehend a sporty daughter who “wears trackies” and is more interested in chasing soccer balls than boys, trying to convince her to wear padded bras and lamenting the fact that Jules “won’t get a man” if she’s sporty. Jess and Jules are kindred spirits, and it’s Jules that provides the “summer job” cover story that Jess uses to get out of the house and play soccer with the Harriers.

Of course, you know the ruse can’t last, and the shit hits the fan when Pinky’s fiancé’s parents see Jess and the tall, short-haired Jules laughing together with their arms around each other. Thinking they’ve seen Jess “kissing a boy” in public, and citing her “bad behavior” as a reflection on the Bhamra family, they call off Pinky’s engagement to their son. Though Jess’ parents do believe her when she explains the mistake, a pissed-off Pinky outs Jess as still playing soccer, and Jess is forced to quit the team. When Joe makes a surprise visit to the Bhamra house to explain about Jess’ extraordinary talent and try to convince them to change their minds, we finally start to understand more about Jess’ dad’s reluctance to let her play. It’s not just about rigid cultural/gender expectations, but about protecting Jess. Mr. Bhamra himself was a talented cricket player in Africa in his youth who was denied entrance into an English league by some racist assholes, and he doesn’t want Jess to experience the same disappointments he did.

It’s so easy to see cloying expectations, rules, and proscriptions in black and white terms — thinking the people and systems that enforce them are just strict, unreasonable, bigoted jerks. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s exactly the case — blowhards who think they are right, everyone else is wrong, and refuse to listen to other opinions. But sometimes there’s more to it, and often that “more” is based in fear. When asked why her parents are afraid to let her play soccer, Jess says, “They want to protect me. This (soccer) has taken me away from everything they know.” And that’s the crux of the matter. Jess’ parents, Jules’ mom — they only know one way to be happy, and they are afraid to allow their daughters to choose a different way, lest they experience disappointment. In their own ways, they act the way they do because they love their daughters and want them to be happy. Though this attitude is often not justifiable, it is at least understandable, and understanding is the key to acceptance and change, isn’t it?

Anyway, I feel like things are getting Too Serious ™ here, so let me dial it back and reassure you there’s lots of fun to be had here. Friendships, burgeoning romance (oh yeah, there’s a whole Thing with Joe, Jess, and Jules), soccer action, and a glimpse into the colorful traditions of Indian culture. People learn stuff, and we end on a high note. What better way to start a new year?

Originally published at cinapse.co on January 7, 2015.

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