'Polite Society' Movie Review [Sundance 2023]: A Light-Hearted … – Showbiz Cheat Sheet

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Filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright are still making movies, but their signature styles already influenced an entire generation of artists. Toss their works into a blender along with Bollywood flair, and you’ll get Nida Manzoor’s feature film debut, Polite Society. This offbeat martial arts comedy doesn’t reach the heights of its inspirations, but its high-spirited nature makes it an infectious adventure.
Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) is a London schoolgirl who runs her own martial arts channel on YouTube, but she’s still in training. She has the dream of becoming the world’s greatest stuntwoman, looking up to one of the current best, named Eunice Huthart. Meanwhile, Ria is incredibly close with her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), who is an art school dropout now living back at home.
One day, Lena suddenly agrees to marry the wealthy and handsome Salim (Akshay Khanna), whose mother (Nimra Bucha) pressures him to finally settle down with a wife. In under a month, the couple agrees to get married and move to Singapore for his work. However, Ria believes that something is off and enlists her closest friends on a mission to kidnap Lena to save her from her own wedding.
Polite Society is all about the sisterhood between Rita and Lena, who are both bursting with creativity imbued with big dreams for the future. However, they’re in different stages of their lives – Rita is still bright-eyed about the future, while Lena is coming to the realization that she may have aimed her goals too high. Nevertheless, Rita has enough fervor for Lena’s success for the both of them. To the stuntwoman-to-be, marriage and creativity are mutually exclusive, and she’s willing to do anything to save her sister’s future.
All of the women in Manzoor’s screenplay are fighting to be seen in their own ways. They are unjustly judged by others within their community, unlike the men, putting pressure on them to achieve socially-acceptable goals. Rita and Lena’s mother yearns to find acceptance from her group of friends, including Salim’s mother, which directly leads to their children’s engagement, acting as her ticket to higher society. Meanwhile, Rita wants to hear from Eunice so desperately, and Lena simply wants to be seen as more than the disappointing young woman who couldn’t make it through college.
Polite Society is an empowering female-centric story with meaningful representation. Women have agency and propel their own narratives forward without serving the stories of the men that surround them. Rita mentions that the “universe always bends to men,” but she believes that it’s time that women have their time. She refuses to be silenced and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that Lena doesn’t lose her independence or her voice.
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Manzoor’s screenplay turns meta, addressing the three-act storytelling structure. When Rita worries that Lena might never embrace her art again, her friends try to reassure her that she’ll return to it by the third act. Polite Society fully leans into its quirky, self-aware comedy, although it doesn’t always land, occasionally experiencing some wear.
This action comedy doesn’t hide its influences, with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World being one of the most obvious. Manzoor shoots the fight sequences like a video game, full of “versus” title cards and all. Unfortunately, the choreography is deeply underwhelming. One would think that a story so focused on stuntwork would have better fight scenes. However, PC Williams’ costume design is beautiful, incorporating cultural dress that contributes representative meaning and additional visual cool factor.
Some of Manzoor’s outlandish plot developments and reveals fall short, but the capable cast works with it. Kansara is an absolute star, showcasing the skills of a rising talent that demands to be noticed. The Umbrella Academy actor Arya is also quite charming, especially in her sisterhood with Kansara’s Rita. Meanwhile, Bucha infuses personality into an otherwise flat villain, although the Ms. Marvel star essentially plays the same character here.
Much like its lead, Polite Society is an endearingly frenetic film that’s heartwarmingly empowering. With better fight scenes and a tighter focus, this could have been an absolute knock-out. As is, Manzoor still proves herself an exciting new voice that we’ll hopefully see a lot more from.
Polite Society kicks into theaters on April 28.


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