Polite Society is a different kind of teen movie. Writer-director Nida Manzoor, known for her work as the creator of We Are Lady Parts, crafts an original action comedy that’s a blast from start to finish. Coming to theatres this April, its narrative contains a vibrant mash-up of sisterhood, friendship, and teenage woes, with a side of cultural and parental pressures. It’s a film that will find a relatability with the viewer thanks to all its nuances, but if that doesn’t grab you, the kick-ass fight scenes sure will.
“I am the fury,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) shouts before another attempt at a flying spin kick. Falling flat on her face, she gets up to try again, with the support of her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) filming her stunts. Ria is a fearless and fiery British-Pakistani teenager with the ambition of becoming a world-renowned stunt woman. Of course, this isn’t something her parents see as a real career. Same with Lena becoming an artist, but now that
she’s dropped out of art school, her parents hope that a career in the medical field is around the corner. It’s a universally familiar dynamic; your family wants the best for you but not accounting for what you actually want. Ria must deal with the fear of disappointment and not meeting certain expectations from her parents, on top of navigating the challenges of adolescence. But bigger problems lie ahead.
While Ria never loses sight of what she wants to do with her life, Lena on the other hand is uncertain about the path her life has been taking. She’s no longer motivated to create art, which worries Ria, and this worry only grows with the introduction of Salim (Akshay Khanna). At an Eid soiree, Lena canoodles with her future husband, while Ria smells the stench of something sinister. The rich playboy and his maleficent mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha) are definitely cooking up some evil master plan to derail Lena’s future. When the couple gets engaged, it leaves Ria and her friends, Clara and Alba (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri respectively, and who are absolutely hilarious), to come up with a plan to break up the wedding. Through their spy hijinks and kung-fu fights, Ria neglects to consider if this marriage is what her sister really wants, and Ria’s actions risk breaking up their sisterhood in the process.
Polite Society feels like it jumped right out of the pages of a comic book. It carries the same energy as comic vectors, with every real “POW!” having an almost tangible quality. The western showdown cues in the score add even more style to some great stunt work that drives Ria’s story forward. Each fight scene has a purpose, whether it’s proving herself to her bully or trying to (literally) knock some sense into Lena. Taking place in both big and small spaces, they’re so entertaining and allow Ria the possibility of failure which helps her grow and hone her skill. The fight choreography, in one later scene, also incorporates the beautiful costume design of Pakistani dresses, with colorful silks flying through the air. It’s all cinematic and over-the-top but in a good way. The film not only hammers home the emotional battles that Ria and Lena go through, but the physical battle between them proves to be the most surprising and brutal. It demonstrates just how such a close relationship can feel like a real punch in the gut when it’s broken.
The bond between sisters is the heart of this teen comedy and it would completely derail without the perfect leads. Luckily, Kansara and Arya command their individual scenes, while also being perfectly in sync together. Kansara, in particular, really surprises. In her first leading role, she shows versatility, being both adept at drama and comedy. Her expressions of disgust at any sight or mention of Salim are especially laughter-inducing. Arya brings a real sharp edge to Lena in a turn that shows an arresting unpredictability. You never know, with expression or action, what she’ll do next, and Lena’s transformation through the film is compelling.
Manzoor has truly crafted something special. While the nefarious masterplan at the film’s center is a little too ridiculous for its own good, Polite Society proves itself to be a bold and gut-busting ode to the action genre that breaks the stubbornly held mold of what an action hero can be. Not only do we get to see the action hero be a flawed teenage girl, but by including a lead of South Asian descent, the film welcomes a whole new group of people into a genre that has, more often than not, left them out of the Western mainstream.