Sports in Dialogue: Fundamental sports movies

Two movies to enjoy, sports fan or not

Illustration of two people watching sports movies together on a couch.
ILLUSTRATION: Hailey Gil / The Peak

By: Isabella Urbani, Sports Editor, and Simran Sarai, Sports Writer

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

The term “Bend it like Beckhammay pay homage to English soccer legend David Beckham’s legendary curling free-kick shot. But the movie Bend It Like Beckham chronicles Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, a young British-Punjabi woman’s, dreams of becoming a professional soccer player much to the chagrin of her parents. While trying to rebel against her parents’ cultural norms, Jess is also navigating her newfound friendship with teammate Jules Paxton, and a blossoming romance with her soccer coach, Joe. Jess takes viewers on one hell of a journey as she struggles to be true to herself and be a “good” daughter to her parents in a movie that weaves cultural differences, love, and high stakes together. 

Simran: I’ll be honest, I loved this movie growing up. It was so wonderful to see my culture represented on the screen, and in relation to a sport that I loved! I think Jess was definitely an icon for a lot of young girls struggling to balance athletics in more traditional households.

Isabella: Very true. It was refreshing to see a sports movie, especially a Disney one, go against the grain and focus on marginalized voices in sports. It was equally as nice to see the main conflict of the story be Jess’ battle to honour her roots while playing the sport she loved, instead of having the antagonist be an opposing team. One storyline that was not appreciated was the romantic relationship between Jess and her soccer coach. I can’t believe that movie had me rooting for that relationship with every fibre of my being. Yuck! Talk about an ugly power dynamic.

S: Joe dating Jess was definitely a little questionable. I mean a lot questionable. Also, his attempt to relate to Jess’ experiences with discrimination was entirely ridiculous. There’s an entire meme of him saying, “I’m Irish, of course, I understand what that feels like!”

I: That was a definite swing and a miss. It comes off as ignorant. Not to mention, Joe was able to have a successful career in soccer without being subjected to racial hate on the field. 

S: But strange player-coach relationship aside, this movie was one of the first sports films I saw that blended a desire for athletic excellence and satisfying cultural expectations. I felt very seen when I watched it growing up, and I still love it to this day. It is definitely a family favourite in my household!

I: As a woman in sports, although I can’t directly relate to Jess’ battle to be seen as a person of colour, I can relate to feeling like an outcast in both my family and in my profession. While I salute this movie for trying to tackle a lot of real-life issues like discrimination and homophobia, there’s this one scene where Jess’ mom becomes furious because she thinks her daughter is dating her teammate Jules. As if dating someone of the same gender is more of a cause for concern than dating someone much older, who’s your coach. This movie definitely has all the eye-catching jokes of an early 2000s movie, so be aware that it’s a little outdated. 

McFarland, USA (2015) and Gotta Kick It Up (2002)

Director Niki Caro brought tears to eyes when she brought this heartwarming story inspired by real events to screens worldwide. Former football coach Jim White must relocate his family to small-town, McFarland, California, which is home to a strong Latinx population. After being fired as assistant coach to the McFarland High School football team, White decides to form a cross-country team.

S: I ran cross country in high school and I remember our coach taking us to watch McFarland, USA on opening night in theatres. It’s definitely a cheesy, feel-good sports movie, but I think the message it sends is so important. Hearing about these young boys who were able to harness the ability of sport to grow into their self-confidence and skills, and then go on to lead lives they are all proud of, is a real-life story that I’m so glad made it onto big-screens.

I: In full transparency, I just watched this film the other day because Simran recommended it. But it didn’t disappoint. I’m a sucker for sports films that have less to do with a sport itself, and more to do with the experiences that the team goes through. It reminds me a lot of a Disney channel movie called, Gotta Kick It Up. The movie is centred around a predominately Latina dance team that tries to assemble a competitive squad amongst other white schools which pour more money into their teams. 

S: I haven’t seen Gotta Kick It Up yet, but I am so glad that producers and directors started making more films focused on the differences between high school sports programs in higher and lower-income neighbourhoods. It’s a very real problem that we experience here in BC too, and I think that telling these stories through film is a great way for younger people to learn about the issue in a comprehensive way.

I: Athletic funding is definitely not divided up equally. Teams that do better typically get more money. But how does this help unsupported teams become successful? It often takes miracle seasons like the one seen in the movie for teams to get the funding they deserve, which isn’t easily achievable. If you do watch the movie, the scene where Coach White is explaining how scoring works in cross country by comparing  it to golf, one of the runners chuckles and says, “You think we play golf?” I laughed so hard, I had tears coming out of my eyes. You just have to watch it to appreciate how perfectly the line was recited. 

Up until now, I never realized just how many sports films Disney released in the ‘90s and 2000s. Growing up, I never thought of movies like Johnny Tsunami and The Thirteenth Year to be “sports films.” They were just about two teenagers struggling to adapt to new environments while playing sports. Interweaving sports into these characters’ lives just added authenticity to the films. And if authenticity is what we’re after, sports films need to continue to be representative of the issues characters face outside of their sport. The exciting sports montages and game clips viewers get to experience might be what they remember most after an initial watch of a film. But genuine storylines and experiences are what make people come back and enjoy rewatching these films years later.