Bend It Like Beckham opens with its spunky female protagonist competing in a soccer match alongside David Beckham, suggesting the film will follow in the footsteps of Like Mike, another movie named after an iconic athlete who hovers silently over the proceedings like a benevolent deity. The scene is revealed to be a dream sequence once the protagonist's overbearing Indian mother arrives to publicly castigate her, setting the stage for a movie more along the lines of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, another crowd-pleaser about a woman who must choose between the tradition-bound dictates of her colorful ethnic family and the dictates of her heart. Already a huge international hit, Beckham stars Parminder Nagra as a soccer-obsessed British Indian teen whose love of sports meets stubborn resistance from members of her closed-minded family, who simply want her to marry a nice Indian boy. A Sporty Spice in a world of push-up-bra-wearing Sexy Spices, Nagra finds a kindred spirit in Keira Knightley, a similarly soccer-loving teen with a similarly disapproving mother. Impressed by Nagra's play, Knightley quickly bonds with her peer and gets her on a team coached by Velvet Goldmine's brooding Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Nagra keeps her spot on the team a secret from her family, a situation complicated by her romantic feelings toward the decidedly non-Indian Rhys-Meyers. Bend It Like Beckham unfolds like a typical romantic comedy, with a plot built on comical misunderstandings, building to a climax that forces its heroine to choose between two highly symbolic events, each of which represents a larger life choice. Like the rest of the film, Beckham's climax is surprisingly satisfying, however, in large part because director Gurinder Chadha films the competing big game and big fat Indian wedding of Nagra's sister with equivalently bursting levels of color, panache, and verve. Chadha's brisk, vibrant direction deserves much of the credit for Beckham's success, but the cast also plays a big role. Nagra and Knightley are winning and fresh in star-making performances, as is Rhys-Meyers, who brings smoldering intensity to a role that calls for little more than high cheekbones, delicate features, and a photogenic pout. Bend It Like Beckham never threatens to break free from the strictures of formula, but its crowd-pleasing exuberance serves as a potent reminder of why formulas exist in the first place.
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