You seldom leave a theater walking on air, much less float all through a movie. But the joyous "Bend It Like Beckham" never lets you down. Although there's more bounce than heft here, perhaps that's to be expected for a coming-of-age comedy about an Anglo Indian soccer prodigy.
Set in a middle-class suburb of London, the story centers on the travails of Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (radiant Parminder K. Nagra), a teenager whose passion for football conflicts with her stern but loving parents' traditional values. The Bhamras, Sikhs who fled Uganda for England, discourage Jess's tomboyish pursuits, insisting that she learn to prepare Punjabi dishes and, like her older sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), latch on to a nice Indian boy.
"Anyone can cook aloo gobi," Jess protests, "but who can bend a ball like Beckham?" Mrs. Bhamra (cluck-clucking Shaheen Khan) is clueless -- as many an American viewer may well be -- when it comes to the skills of David Beckham, the star player of England's Manchester United. Though her father (Bollywood star Anupam Kher), a sterling cricket man, is more tolerant of Jess's ambitions, he fears she will run into the same prejudices that kept him from playing in the London leagues.
Despite her parents' wishes, Jess sneaks out to play pickup games with the boys in the park, where she is spotted by Juliette "Jules" Paxton (Keira Knightley of "The Phantom Menace"). Jules, who plays for a women's team, urges Jess to try out for the squad. She impresses the team's handsome Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) but must lie to her parents to make practices and games, and faces jealousy from her new teammates.
Though Jules's father encourages his daughter's dream of playing pro ball, her mother (delightful Juliet Stevenson) shares Mrs. Bhamra's scorn for women's sports. She has tried to interest Jules in makeup, Wonderbras and chasing boys, but to no avail. "There's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a feller," she cautions her daughter. As the girls' friendship deepens, the paranoid soccer mom becomes frantic with the conviction that they are lesbian lovers.
Kenyan-born filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, who wrote the screenplay with her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, draws on her own years in London's Southall neighborhood. Perhaps that's why the characters aren't caricatures and the domestic situations evolve so naturally. And although Chadha wasn't a soccer player, she ably captures the beauty and the bitchiness of women's athletics in this warm, buoyant family film.
The clash between immigrants and their acclimated offspring often drives big fat cross-cultural comedies, whether they be smart independent films like "The Wedding Banquet" or more mainstream efforts like "Beckham." But they're not always brought off with such ease and artfulness.
Bend It Like Beckham (112 minutes, at Loews Theatres Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for language.