'Beckham' scores a winning goal

Movies are great barometers for cultural - and multicultural - attitudes.

"Bend It Like Beckham" is an interesting case in point.

The story centers on Jesminder, an Indian teenager living in London with her highly traditional family. Her passion is soccer and her hero is David Beckham, a (real-life) sportsman who can bend a winning kick like nobody else on the field.

In the age of Ozzy Osbourne, you couldn't ask for a more wholesome role model - or so you'd think. Jess's parents disagree. Every one of their conventional instincts tells them nice young women don't chase after balls in front of ogling crowds. Jess should emulate her sister Pinky and find an old-fashioned fiancé who believes in marriage, domesticity, and wives devoted to cooking, not kicking.

This puts Jess in a bind, caught between a family she loves and a future she'd prefer to fashion on her own terms.

If that sounds familiar, you may have seen director Gurinder Chadha's two previous pictures, "What's Cooking?" and "Bhaji on the Beach," also about tensions between ethnic allegiances and the pursuit of happiness.

Other films have explored similar territory, from the 1991 drama "Mississippi Masala" and the 1999 comedy "East is East" to the 1985 tragicomedy "My Beautiful Laundrette," still the most brilliant specimen of the breed.

Except for "My Beautiful Laundrette," which takes a far more scathing approach, none of these movies found an audience as enthusiastic as the one that's been flocking to "Bend It Like Beckham" in England and other European markets. There the time is clearly ripe for probing multicultural problems in a good-humored yet serious-minded way.

Will the film find a similar reception in the US? A year ago, I would have said no. Culture-clash comedies have a loyal but limited US audience. Even the more successful ones have short wide-screen runs.

The times may be a-changing, though. The different but related "Monsoon Wedding" did fairly well last year, and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" struck it rich. While there's hardly one worthwhile moment in that collection of clichés, its overwhelming success points to a fundamental shift in minority attitudes.

Just a few years ago, the generally felt aspiration of ethnic groups was to blend in with the majority culture. Today it's to flourish in modern society while actively remembering old-country values.

The rush to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" showed how eager audiences are to see this process in action. "Bend It Like Beckham" could cement the trend.

Rated PG-13 for mild vulgarity, sex.

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