Young martial artist Ria (Priya Kansara) wants to be a professional stunt performer. Her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), has dreams of being an artist, though she’s dropped out of art school. Problem is, their Pakistani immigrant parents, while indulgent of the whims of their children, have aims of their own. When the directionless Lena agrees to an arranged marriage to too-good-to-be-true doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna) and his family who may or may not have a nefarious endgame—Ria has an overactive imagination and is prone to flights of wild fancy, so who’s to say what’s real—it’s up to the younger sister to save the day. Or maybe just ruin the Big Day.
Such is the setup of Nida Manzoor’s action-comedy Polite Society. Fantastical and farcical, the film pays homage to classic martial arts movies as well as coming-of-age tropes, with a dash of spy thriller vibes thrown in for good measure. The mixture is clever and hilarious, combining face-kicks, earnest sisterly love, and charm for days. Manzoor balances over-the-top exaggeration as Ria’s imagination shapes the world to fit her fantasies with deep emotional resonance as she struggles to come to terms with the possibility of losing her sister to a new life and external pressures.
The relationship between Ria and Lena forms the emotional core of Polite Society. No one besides them knows what the other is going through. As first-generation children of immigrants, they carry the dual weight of parental and cultural expectations. Torn between two worlds, they feel like outsiders in their own community at the same time they struggle to fit into the British society around them. It’s a clash of cultures and generations—Ria’s friends don’t understand her perspective, and their parents certainly don’t get it. And the prospect of losing Lena to both a marriage and a move to Singapore sends Ria into a spiral. One that may or may not be warranted.
Manzoor, who both directed and wrote the script, avoids cliches similar stories often fall into. It would have been so easy to paint the parents as villains, for example. While Ria and Lena’s parents have hopes and dreams for their kids, and do pressure them to take certain paths, they’re not hardliners and are legitimately interested in the happiness of their daughters. Sure, they’d prefer them to be doctors, but they’re at least open to other ideas. And though Lena’s marriage is technically arranged, she and Salim appear to have a legitimate romantic connection and burgeoning love. Basically, there’s more nuance and gray to the situation than there easily could have been, and it steers clear of stereotypes in favor of complex, multifaceted characters that can have realistic experiences, like conflicting feelings on things.
Both Kansara and Arya are wonderful, charming and charismatic, and they share a chemistry that sells the sibling bond and grounds the more fantastic elements of the film. Ria is brash and confident, so sure of herself in that way that belies deep seeded teenage insecurity and leads to reckless overcorrection. Lena, on the other hand, is the opposite. She’s lost all faith in her abilities and finds herself aimless, adrift and unsure of what to do with herself. One of her first scenes is just her in her ratty sweats beasting a whole roast chicken on the street.
There are also a couple low-key MVPs to talk about in Polite Society. First up are Ria’s spunky BFFs Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), who are sturdy ride-or-dies, background comedic texture, and just about through with Ria’s shit—let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be a movie about a self-absorbed teenage girl if she didn’t alienate her friends at some point. The real standout, however, is Nimra Bucha as Raheela, Salim’s mother, and the primary antagonist. She practically hisses her villainy. On the surface she has everyone fooled, except Ria that is, and she has a blast wallowing in her evil plan. And it’s an absurd plan, even by the standards of a movie full of this much silliness. (The scheme itself is a bit of a letdown when it’s finally revealed, like, really, that’s what you went with? Though by the time it comes out, the movie is moving along fast enough to slide by without much friction.)
For an action-comedy, the focus is squarely on the laughs and there’s not nearly as much action as billed, which is probably for the best. The action is solid and does what it needs to do, but if this was an action-first movie, some might find it wanting. Instead, Manzoor highlights the story and characters rather than high-flying acrobatic fisticuffs, though there are some fun tussles, and a nice elaborate dance number.
Polite Society is funny, charming, and sweet. The film whips along at a rapid pace, carried by a compelling lead, not to mention a great score and soundtrack. What’s not to love about a coming-of-age martial arts heist comedy? [Grade: A-]