Empowerment zone made just for girls in tales of family, dreams

April 04, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Welcome to Girl Empowerment weekend at the local multiplex. Bend It Like Beckham is a joyful celebration of spirit and endurance, the story of a plucky Sikh girl living in London who only wants to play soccer, but whose parents insist she hold to their more traditional family values and concentrate on cooking and finding a husband. The film pokes gentle fun at cultural differences without trivializing them and celebrates a life well-lived, if only because it's a life brimming with possibilities.

What a Girl Wants is movie lite, a clueless, formulaic paint-by-numbers comedy of clashing cultures in which a sassy American teen-ager crosses the Big Pond, sticks it to those stuffy Brits and leaves them line-dancing in their castles. The film trivializes nearly everything, wrings its few laughs out of tired cliches and depends on the wattage of its young star to attract audiences.

That star would be 17-year-old Amanda Bynes, late of Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show, cast as Daphne Reynolds, a dewy-eyed teen who only wants to dance with her dad at some father-daughter social function. And that's never going to happen, for her dad is all the way over there in England, her mom doesn't want anything to do with him anymore - she's never even told him he has a daughter - and apparently Daphne has never heard of trans-Atlantic phone calls.

So spunky Daphne hops on a plane and finds herself in London, where her father, Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), is about to be elected prime minister. Naturally, he's slightly bemused when she shows up on the castle doorstep and announces her parentage, but he struggles to do the right thing.

What a Girl Wants wears its triteness like a badge of honor; when it tries to be anything more, it's embarrassing. Example: when Daphne arrives in London, and the camera takes her and us on a whirlwind tour of the town, it's to the musical accompaniment of the Clash's "London Calling." When a movie shows us its plucky teen heroine encountering London for the first time, the appropriate music is a song about rioting in the streets?

And Bynes, while undeniably talented and appealing, is called upon to do too much here. She's constantly being asked to pump energy into her surroundings, not to mention the movie's old war horse of a plot. After a while, the strain shows.

Happily, the strain never shows in Beckham, a truly joyful film in which teen-ager Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) simply wants to do what she's good at: playing soccer. The problem is amusingly presented in the film's opening sequence, a daydream in which Jess finds herself playing for the British national team alongside David Beckham. But her daydream turns into a nightmare when she imagines her mother on a talk show complaining that girls have no business running around half-naked in front of crowds full of men when there's naan to be baked at home.

Writer-director Gurinder Chadha uses a light touch to examine the cultural differences faced by girls like Jess, whose parents are loath to let her become like other disrespectful teens they see all over England. Every time her mother goes into a tirade, her father's there to cushion the blow - but also to remind Jess that her mother's right. And answers don't come easily for Jess, who has no desire to hurt her parents, but doesn't want to let go of the possibilities her soccer skills might afford her (including a possible career in the United States, where she dreams of making like Mia Hamm).

And it's not just the daughters of Sikh immigrants who are having a tough time. Jess' friend, Jules (Keira Knightley), is likewise dedicated to soccer, and has a mom who's against the very idea. No man would want to marry a girl who runs around in a sports bra, her mom tells Jules - adding, in the movie's best line, "There's a reason Sporty is the only Spice Girl who hasn't married."

Bend It Like Beckham never forces anything on its characters, save that they act like real people, facing real problems, struggling to cope, often with refreshing good humor and grace. The result is a film that amuses, enlightens and - for anyone who's ever wanted to chase a dream without chasing away the people who love you - truly empowers.

Bend It Like Beckham

Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Anupam Kher

Directed by Gurinder Chadha

Rated PG-13 (Language, mild sexual situations)

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Time 112 minutes

Sun score *** 1/2

What a Girl Wants

Starring Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth

Directed by Dennie Gordon

Rated PG (Mild language)

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 104 minutes

Sun score *1/2

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