Female Filmmaker Friday: Bend It Like Beckham, 2002 (dir. Gurinder Chadha)
This movie did not come to my hometown theater and I was dyyyyying to see it. I think it finally was available to rent after Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl came out in theaters. Of course, my hometown rental store mostly had “full frame” VHS tapes and a few “full frame” DVDs at that time, so odds are I saw a really shitty version. But I do remember distinctly watching it with my best friend Sadie (we were both in track and field at the time) and we both loved it so much. I think this kind of movie is really important for the development of the self-esteem of young girls. We need more positive, complex movies like this.
I think I then got this movie for my birthday or Christmas, making it one of the very first DVDs I ever bought and one I would watch often on sick days during my last year of high school. I remember how it made me feel like I could do anything if I worked hard enough and I remember it being one of the first movies that gave that message to young men. October Sky has a similarly positive message about thriving under diversity and striving for your hopes and dreams, but like most movies it speaks almost solely to white dudes. For some reason, Hollywood tends to think white dudes are the universal medium. Have they met white dudes? But I digress.
When we first meet Jess (Parminder Nagra) she’s in the middle of day-dreaming about how she’s the best thing that has ever happened to English football (aka soccer). Who hasn’t had a daydream like this? It’s so perfect. This dream is, of course, interrupted – first in the dream, then later in real life – by her mother, who doesn’t understand her love of “bald white men” in shorts. We also see that Jess’s entire room is covered in pictures and clippings about David Beckham – her idol. Later when we see her soon-to-be-friend Jules’s room, it is similarly decorated. Jules’s mom comments that she bets Jess’s room isn’t covered in “butch women” – Jules has mostly women sports heroes – and the two girls just giggle. I love how accurate a depiction of a teenage girl’s room this is. A lot of time in movies, girls rooms are too neat and too “designed” and don’t feel authentic at all (American Beauty is another good, accurate example). Jess’s room looks a lot like mine did at that age – except it was covered in pictures of Ewan McGregor.
When we first meet Jules and her mom (Juliet Stevenson), we’re at her mother’s job in a lingerie store. She’s trying to convince Jules to get a new bra – some of them are push-up or have lace – but all Jules wants is a new sports bra. Director Gurinder Chadha does a great job of cutting back and forth between the lives of these two girls and showing us how parallel they are. Both have mothers who are trying to make them “women” in the traditional sense – bras and saris and cooking and dating – and don’t understand their obsession with something so traditionally feminine, namely sports. I also like how while a lot of the non-sporty girls that Chadha shows are definitely “slags”, she never once slut-shames them. She never says Jess and Jules are better because they chose sports over boys. She’s just trying to show that there is more than one option for how a young girl can behave.
Before she joins a real team, Jess mostly plays in the park with other boys from her neighborhood. She’s better than all of them, yet they continually make fun of her. Is it jealously? Is it the culture of telling women they are less than? Are they just shitty teenage boys? Whatever it is, Jess does not put up with their shit and it’s great.
Really, my only complaint about this movie is I wish they hadn’t made the storyline about Jess and Jules both fancying their coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). I’m just so sick of two-girls-one-guy. I guess it’s an age-old storyline and that’s why we go to it as a storytelling culture over and over, but it just seems so patriarchal and I’m sick of it. That said, all three of these actors have great chemistry together and their characters learn a lot from each other.
In both cases, the dads of the girls are more supportive of their sporty nature than their mothers. Jules’s dad tells her mother after she says “there’s a reason Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella,” that he is over the moon that their daughter is more interested in sports than she is boys. I find this slightly problematic, though totally accurate. He’s fostering her love of sports partially because he’s a supportive guy, but also because he’s trying to keep his daughter an “innocent” girl a little longer, hoping to keep her from becoming a sexually active woman as long as he can. I would say that this fear of dads is something that’s continually perpetuated by Hollywood and fiction, but then you see those creepy portraits of dads with their virgin daughters who have promised to stay pure and you realize it’s societal. Is it because dudes know how awful they can be to women or that they think sex is shameful that they strive so hard to preserve their daughter’s “purity”? I don’t know what it’s about, but it’s certainly an aspect of society that needs changing.
A big plot point comes when the girls are waiting for the bus and they’re laughing together. Girls, unlike guys, are more likely to hug and be close physically with their friends (there’s less no-homo-ing among girls I think) and because of this, Jess’s sister’s soon-to-be mother-in-law sees her and thinks she is making out with a white boy in public. She uses this as an excuse to end the engagement between Jess’s sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) and her son. This is the first instance of “slut-shaming” that we see. Early, Pinky and her fiance were seen making out (and more) in their car parked at the airport. They’ve managed (sort of) to hide the fact that they’ve been physical before their wedding – even though that is common practice for Anglo people in England/elsewhere. But if Pinky comes from a “loose family,” that brings disgrace to everyone who attaches themselves to them. Later in the story, Jules’s mom sees them in a similar moment and assumes they are lesbians, which causes her to panic and yell at both girls. For her, being a lesbian is the worst thing in the world. This is so strange for a mom who wanted more than anything for her daughter to date – but for her it must be heterosexual dating only. Sigh. They fix the misunderstanding, but they never really address how not okay it is to be homophobic. But they do address homosexuality, which I will get to in a bit.
Like I said earlier, Chadha does a great job of balancing the two girls’ lives, showing how similar they both are and how their parents have similar hopes and fears for their daughters. Chadha not only does this with story and actions, but also with scenes (like above) that are staged similarly. Cinema is a visual medium and she does a great job of usually visuals to reinforce the film’s themes.
Eventually, Jess and Jules’s team makes it to the championship and Jess must sneak out of her sister’s wedding (it gets patched up) in order to play. There’s a great scene where she gets a foul (or something; I’m sorry I don’t know much about soccer) and gets to shoot a penalty shot, which if she makes it means they win. She imagines that the girls she must “bend” the ball around are her family. It’s a great surreal moment where we see everything Jess is fighting against. She, of course, makes the goal and they win.
They head back to Pinky’s wedding, which then leads to the scene where Jules’s mom accuses them of being lesbians. There’s some great funny lines that came out of that scene. Archie Panjabi is fantastic in the few scenes that she’s in. She’s got a great screen presence.
Jess and Jules are offered a scholarship to attend Santa Clara college and play soccer there, but Jess knows her parents won’t let her go. Her best friend Tony (Ameet Chana), whom everyone assumes she loves, comes up with a solution. He is actually gay, but deep in the closet and Jess is the only one who knows the truth. He tells everyone that he and Jess are going to get married, but that he wants her to go to college wherever she wants first. Her family is overjoyed. Throughout the entire film, Jess has struggled to get to do the things she wants, because what she wants isn’t a priority. What she wants practically doesn’t matter. Now, a non-family member, but a male, has something to say and suddenly what he says matters. Chadha’s got something to say about how her culture treats women (just like Jules’s storyline comments on how Anglo-culture treats women) and this moment is the most telling. Jess is overwhelmed by what Tony is willing to do for her, but she won’t let him sacrifice his own happiness for hers. She tells the truth and pleads with her parents to let her go. Eventually, her father realizes that he came to this country to give his children a better life, and part of that means letting them have opportunities like this when they arise.
I haven’t written much about Jonathan Rhys Meyers, mostly because I wanted to focus on the girls, but he is pretty great in this movie and I can see why both girls might fall for such a charming, talented dude. But he seems almost too good. He tells Jess early on about his strained relationship with her father and about how he injured himself and that’s why he’s coaching a girls team. You’d think, if this was like A League of Their Own, he would be drunk and mean, at least part of the time. Instead, he seems to love his job too much and he seems like too good of a guy. I guess in a movie where we have so many great, complicated women, it’s okay that we have a dream guy as the male lead.
We do, however get this great moment right after Jess says okay to giving a relationship a shot and then walks away from him. Chadha holds the camera on his happy face and he does this thing where he looks down and bites his lip (see above), then looks back up and it is SO REAL and so cute and he’s so happy and it’s such a great moment. It’s a very feminine choice to include. If a male had directed this movie, I think we would have cut to a very male-gazy moment where he watches her walk to the plane. Instead, we get to watch him in a very intimate moment. Bless Gurinder Chadha for this moment!
Thus, the girls overcome adversity – both within society and their own families – and head off to America to achieve their dreams and take over the world of soccer/football/whatever else they decide to do because they can do whatever the fuck they want as long as they earn it!