It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially by my mother. If I hate so many movies, and so many things in so many other movies that I don’t actually hate entirely, then is there any movie in which I find nothing objectionable? And, more than that, is there any single movie that I think isn’t just unobjectionable, but also, you know, really good?
In short: what’s my perfect movie?
Now, I can’t answer that universally. People like different things in their movies, it’s a fact of nature. My perfect movie is probably someone else’s objectionable mess. But when it comes to that question, after thinking long and hard about it, I do have an answer. Bend It Like Beckham is my perfect movie.
Allow me to explain why.
Now, to start off with just personal taste stuff, there’s a reason why I picked this particular movie. In addition to all the really awesome social stuff, which we will talk about, and the wonderful themes and fantastic character representations, I like Bend It Like Beckham because it is a fun freaking movie. Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Archie Panjabi and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, it’s a fantastic little indie about an Indian girl in London who just wants to play professional football (soccer), much against the wishes of her traditional family.
With Keira Knightley as her best friend, Rhys-Meyers as the coach who believes in her (and secretly wants to kiss her), and Panjabi as her complicated, soon-to-be-married sister, the whole story twists through the usual sports movie clichés, and deftly works in an examination of the second generation immigrant experience. And it’s funny.
Since I happen to love sports movies, and am very curious about Indian culture (a friend has a whole theory about why we become interested in other cultures and what that says about the culture we inhabit, but it’s too long to go into here), I found this to be a particularly intoxicating mix of stories. Also it’s about soccer, which I like, and reminds me just the tiniest bit of The Big Green, a childhood favorite.
So, for all those reasons, I was pre-programmed to really like Bend It Like Beckham. What I wasn’t already prepped for was how freaking good it is.
When it comes to judging a “perfect movie”, or at least one that meets my standards, it has to pass a couple of basic tests. First, it has to pass the Bechdel Test. That’s the one about female characters and their involvement in the plot. This film passes with flying colors. Then, if we get that far, we do the Race Test, which is just a version of the Bechdel Test with “character of color” substituted for “female character”. And, finally, we just scan the film for a minute to see if anything offensive or weird has popped out. No? Good.
But just passing a few tests doesn’t make a movie “perfect.” What it does is make it adequate. Yes, it seems harsh to say it, but passing those tests really is the bare minimum a film can do under the name of being inclusive. What really counts is how the film deals with the rest of the story.
This is where Bend It Like Beckham truly shines. Built into the premise of the story are several large social issues. There’s Jess’ (Nagra) dissociation from her parents’ culture and desire to assimilate into British mainstream footie culture. There is also her friend Jules’ (Knightley) constant battles with her mother (Juliet Stevenson) over the meaning and importance of femininity.
There are questions about what it means to be a woman. There are even more questions about how to balance the importance of family and culture with the individualistic desire to strike out for something new.
Without the examination of these issues, Bend It Like Beckham would be a cute little story that holds no water. No character ever gives a monologue about these problems (well, maybe once), and no scriptwriter should be so obvious as to make them overt, but these are the base themes that make the movie work. We care about Jess because she is a rebel, but we love her because she wants her family to love her. This movie has depth, and that goes a long way to making it perfect.
I wouldn’t say that this movie is absolutely perfect for everyone ever, but in terms of the values that I hold dear, it hits the mark squarely in the center. It’s about a young girl, who doesn’t just look different but feels different too, dealing with her difference and coming to understand that being brilliant at what you do is nothing if you have no one to support you in it, but also that begging for support will never make you happy. Superficially, I can say that it’s a movie with multiple strong female characters, where the lead is a character of color, and I can talk about how it addresses issues of race and sex in a loving and intriguing way. But that isn’t why it’s perfect.
This movie is perfect because until I pointed all of that out to you, you probably hadn’t given it a single thought. You just freaking liked it.
That is a perfect movie.