Sundance 2023 Review: POLITE SOCIETY, Delightful Genre Re-Mix

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Sundance 2023 Review: POLITE SOCIETY, Delightful Genre Re-Mix

Ria Khan (newcomer Priya Kansara), the bright, shining star in Nida Manzoor’s (We Are Lady Parts) feature-length debut, Polite Society, has a dream.

It’s not just any dream (it’s not that dream). It’s certainly not a dream shared by most British-Pakistani girls her age, but it’s her dream and she throws herself into it with manic energy and unqualified gusto atypical for a girl (or boy) her age: Not only does she seriously study martial arts, but she also wants to follow in the footsteps of her lifelong idol, real-life stuntwoman and stunt double Eunice Huthart.

Emails to Huthart, however, have gone unanswered. That, unsurprisingly, does little to dampen the purity or depth of Ria’s unbridled enthusiasm.

It’s not a dream of her lovingly earnest, well-meaning, if slightly clueless, parents (Shobu Kappor, Jeff Mirza), but they just see Ria's twin obsessions with martial arts and stunts as a phase time and maturity will resolve in their favor. Eventually, Ria will see the light of day and/or decide on a more reputable profession like lawyering or medicine.

That probably explains their patience with their elder daughter, Lena (Ritu Arya, Umbrella Academy), a directionless art-school dropout who hasn’t decided on her future. In the meantime, figurative, sometimes literal arm-twisting by Ria turns Lena into an unwilling videographer for Ria’s YouTube channel.

Not to be outdone plot- or character-wise, Polite Society gives Ria two fast-taking best friends, comrades-in-arms, and partners-in-crime (Seraphina Beh and Ella Brucceri) and a too-big-for-school bully who calls out the over-confident Ria to a battle royale in the middle of the school library. Nothing, not even losing spectacularly, changes Ria’s mind about her future as a stuntwoman like her pin-up hero.

Ria’s resilience in the face of adversity or even reality proves to be one of her many charming attributes. That and her unerring ability to flip from subject to subject with sugar-high speed, sometimes literally.

And that’s all before the central plotline in Polite Society makes an appearance: At a lavish Eid celebration, Ria and Lena join a who’s-who of London’s most eligible British-Pakistani bachelorettes to meet-and-greet the No. 1 most eligible bachelor, Salim (Akshay Khanna), a wickedly handsome, eager-to-marry geneticist with deep-seated maternal issues and an irresistible bank account.

Always the rebel and never the rule follower, Ria doesn’t want to be there, but Lena, contrary to everything Ria knows or thinks about her sister, immediately warms to Salim, agreeing to marriage and post-married life in Singapore after a whirlwind courtship. For Ria, Lena’s actions betray everything she stands for: feminist independence, self-empowerment, and rejecting patriarchal conventions, not to mention a now perpetually postponed career as an artist.

Mixing and remixing genres, Polite Society slips, slides, and jumps between high-school coming-of-age, family comedy-drama, heist thriller, and in probably the most dizzying switch of all, something approaching a science-fiction/horror hybrid, though always with tongue firmly in cheek, quips flying in every direction, and fast-paced action acrobatics that would make Edgar Wright, whose “Cornetto Trilogy” serves as an obvious stylistic and narrative influence here, proud of filmmakers like Manzoor who’ve followed his example, throwing enough of their own personality, preoccupations, and ideas to make the result wholly their own and no one else’s.

Buttressed in no small measure by a deep, deeply talented cast, especially Ritu Arya, whose semi-villainous role on Umbrella Academy should elevate her to “must cast” status, and first-timer Priya Kansara handling a demanding, complex role with the self-assurance and confidence of an actor twice her age, Polite Society both stands on its own as an utterly enchanting, delightful genre remix and as a sizzle reel for Manzoor, Arya, and Kansara. More like this, please.

Polite Society premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is scheduled to open April 28 in U.S. movie theaters via Focus Features

Polite Society

  • Nida Manzoor
  • Nida Manzoor
  • Ritu Arya
  • Ella Bruccoleri
  • Shobu Kapoor
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Nida ManzoorNimra BuchaPolite SocietyPriya KansaraRitu AryaSeraphina BehElla BruccoleriShobu KapoorActionComedy

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