"Bend It Like Beckham" (Fox Searchlight) 112 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Gurinder Chadha.
Written by Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra
Parminder K. Nagra: Jesminder Bhamra
Keira Knightley: Juliette Paxton
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers: Joe
English soccer star David Beckham made headlines recently when he left his Manchester team for Madrid, Spain. Married to a former Spice Girl, Beckham has become a kind of wholesome cultural icon in Great Britain.
And so he is to Jess (or, to be proper, Jessminder), a teenage daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants. Her room features not a Spice Girls poster but one of Beckham, who inspires to dream of soccer stardom. At the local park, she plays soccer against boys with skill and fierceness. Spotted by a talented girl from a local soccer team, the shy Jess joins up, much to the horror of and opposition from her traditional parents, who would rather see her married (and in a comfortable career path) and able to cook Indian dishes. Though the movie is largely predictable and sometimes cloying, it is nonetheless charming. But, more important, it is instructive about multiculturalism today and America's unique chance to counter its destructiveness.
Like soccer star Beckham in his penalty kicks, Jess must learn to "bend it," kicking the ball past an imaginary phalanx of ancestral Indian guardians. Without revealing too much about the plot and what bends it takes, this British movie points to America as the moderate solution to the inequalities of the old, ancestral order and the craziness of the modern world. It is a celebration of freedom, yet one that respects the family's authority insofar as it is authoritative.
In his conclusion of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes that the family cannot survive without laws that uphold its integrity. (An observation about "gay marriage" that deserves contemporary heeding.) In this case we have a father and mother trying to protect their family in an alien land, one that uses his labor but scorns him in other ways. Jess's dad is a father in an alien land. And modernity has become the alien land for fathers of all cultures, who must protect their sons and daughters from truly unnatural acts. Perhaps unwittingly, the film raises the question of what is unnatural—e.g., women playing soccer or homosexuality—through a mother's silliness of confusing her daughter's athleticism with lesbianism.
The wonder of America is its amazingly successful ability to render harmless or at least tame ethnic difference through strength of freedom and virtue. As Victor Davis Hanson has suggested, popular culture might enable us to survive multicultural ideologies foisted on us by academic elites. The popular import of "Bend It Like Beckham" teaches us more about these issues than Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor manages to do in her recent opinions.