In Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, it's not hard to imagine a situation like middle-class London suburb-dwelling Jess'. Her Indian immigrant parents want for her the best of the world that they understand: A traditional Indian husband (like sister Pinky's) and solid test scores that will place her in a university to become anything she wants - "a doctor or solicitor" -- a situation not unlike that of Bend It Like Beckham director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha.
But while Mom thinks the most important thing to teach Jess is proper Punjabi cooking ("both vegetarian and meat"), Jess herself has loftier goals in mind -- specifically, those of England soccer team captain and Manchester United superstar David Beckham. Alone in her room, surrounded by pictures of the shaven-headed icon, Jess (newcomer Parminder Nagra) dreams of elaborate Beckham crosses which she heads behind an unsuspecting goalie, only to be declared a future World Cup heroine.
But, current American affinities aside, "women's football" (a.k.a. soccer) is still about as easy a concept for the average Brit to swallow as "Irish nationalism." It may seem odd in the land that spawned Mia Hamm's sports-bra-revealing, Women's World Cup wonder team, but much of the world, including England, sees soccer as brutally masculine. For Jess' parents (played by Shaheen Khan and Bollywood star Anupam Kher), the idea of their daughter standing in public wearing shorts -- let alone slide-tackling opposition -- is about as appealing as her dating a "gora," a non-Indian. A similar situation befalls Jess' teammate Jules, an Anglo girl whose traditional tea-and-scones English mother, played to full infuriation by Juliet Stevenson, sees her football-playing daughter as one tiny step away from lesbianism.
When this Romeo and Juliet pair begins sneaking off to fulfill a love of the beautiful game, high jinks -- and endless montage scenes -- ensue: Jess leaving the buff boys in the dust in a pickup game; her repeated attempts to sneak off to join the team everywhere from down the street to a trip to Germany; the inevitable trip to Carnaby Street for illicitly purchased new sneakers. With visual trickery suggesting colorful Bollywood imagery as well as British popular film, Chadha keeps Bend It Like Beckham energetic and, at times, very funny. But even Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" can't hold our montage-viewing attention that long.
In the end, Bend It Like Beckham is all about that blurring of images of England, like the cultural-fusion basement bhangra music that provides much of the soundtrack. By the end, of course, everything's sorted out: Crushes on Irish coach Joe (slept through by Jonathon Rhys Meyers), Jess' and Jules' relationships with their parents, even the football. But Bend It Like Beckham is also about more than those relationships. It's about sister Pinky, who may be living the mother-sanctioned life of marriage and cooking, but is still the one with the cockney accent and the club-going nightlife. It's about the new England, in which once-defined boundaries between cultures, gender roles, even sexual orientations, aren't exactly breaking down, but are certainly bending. And despite its somewhat schmaltzy shortcomings, on that level, this film scores. * * 1/2