‘Polite Society’ Review: Nida Manzoor’s Coming-of-Age Heist Flick Is a Boisterous Celebration of Sisterhood

·5-min read

During “Polite Society,” writer-director Nida Manzoor’s boisterous, shrewdly funny and altogether wonderful coming-of-age action-adventure, you might try to recall the last time you’ve seen a young female on the big screen with as much fire in her belly as Ria. Was it the football-loving and tradition defying Jess in “Bend it Like Beckham,” the precocious rebel Marjane in “Persepolis,” the all-female trash metal stars of the recent documentary “Sirens” or the real-life Syrian sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini in “Swimmers”?

While the lead Pakistani character of “Polite Society”—a die-hard martial arts enthusiast played by a fierce Priya Kansara—isn’t an existing hero based on a real-life story of courage, her defiant spirit is so lovingly and precisely defined by Manzoor that you unreservedly believe in her when Ria claims: “I am the fury!”

Also Read:
2023 Movie Release Dates: A Schedule of Films Coming This Year

Okay, perhaps she isn’t quite the fury when we first meet the London-dweller. If anything, she still has a lot to learn in martial arts, until she can outstrip the unsuccessful laughing stock lens many seem to view her through. But whatever she lacks in her mission to become “The Fury,” Ria compensates by never being anything less than discernibly furious. And how could she not be angry, when all she ever wants from life is a career as a stuntwoman like her legendary hero Eunice Huthart (an actual high-profile stuntwoman whose voice delightfully makes an appearance later in the film), but no one will support her ambitions?

In a way, Eunice is to Ria what David Beckham is to Jess, an imaginary friend at the top of the game that she so desperately wants to be a part of. Ria patiently writes to Eunice every chance she gets and tries to fend off her doting, compassionate but traditionally disapproving parents Fatima and Raff (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) on the side. Still, Ria at least has some supporters in her corner, like her quirky best friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), and her equally wayward older sister Lena (a mischievously charismatic Ritu Arya), an aspiring artist with nonconformist goals of her own.

So when Lena falls in love, drops out of art school and decides to get married, Ria sees this both as an act of betrayal and the beginning of the end of her own wild dreams. Weren’t she and Lena going to be kindred spirits in life, rebelling against the expectations of their Pakistani circles by not becoming mothers and housewives? Weren’t they going to do whatever their hearts desired and wear whatever they wanted? (A running joke about the cardigans the smitten “good girl” Lena suddenly stars wearing is a truly hysterical one.) In Ria’s mind, there is only one thing to do: break this sham engagement that she is sure Lena doesn’t even want once and for all, with a little help from her friends and the girls’ former adversary Kovacs (Shona Babayemi).

Also Read:
Trump’s Travel Ban Kicked Off a Wave of Muslim Stories on TV

In following Ria’s quest against the devastatingly handsome doctor/scientist Salim (played by Akshay Khanna with an enigmatic undercurrent), whom we get to meet at a lavish Eid soiree hosted by Salim’s well-heeled family, “Polite Society” is laugh-out-loud hilarious in the vein of “Mean Girls,” shrewdly plotted and edited à la an “Ocean’s”-like heist film, mysterious like “Get Out” and sneakily heartwarming in embracing the story’s generational and cultural specificities—think of something that splits the difference between “The Big Sick” and a leaner “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”

This is, after all, a world imagined by Manzoor, the creator of the radical series “We Are Lady Parts,” whose vivacious soul shines everywhere in “Polite Society.” Manzoor understands the us-against-the-world spirit of sisterhood at a fundamental level, managing to adorn that essence with queries feminine, youthful and specific to the children of immigrant communities: Do I have what it takes to become my own woman in a man’s world? Will my sisters be there for me if I fall? Is my culture at direct odds with my dreams?

These concerns haunt Ria, who has to reckon with the fact that she and Lena are two completely different individuals and people do change, like Lena after finding romance. Perhaps that Salim guy with a squeaky clean record and his wicked witch of a narcissistic mama called Raheela (played fiendishly by the great Nimra Bucha) aren’t that bad, despite the uncomfortable vibe they give out with their overwrought decorum and extreme politeness.

“Polite Society” would have been a good enough film if it left it at that, giving us a happily-ever-after ending for Lena and a sisterly reconciliation between her and Ria. But thankfully, Manzoor proves that she’s set her sights much higher than “good enough.” She pulls a cheery and thrilling twist out of her sleeve, one that is surprising only because it unapologetically embraces the obvious: beware of rich, entitled men who are mommy’s precious little boys.

In the cleverly chaptered film’s outlandish finale with highly entertaining and superbly choreographed fight sequences, Bucha and Kansara give us two opponents we won’t forget for a lifetime: a voracious woman with a snaky smile, wronged by her patriarchal culture so severely that she’s become the Glenn Close of “Dangerous Liaisons” vs. a young girl who wants to topple that patriarchy and all its byproducts once and for all.

Manzoor demonstratively disregards the cliches that often define Muslim families in cinema (an act this Muslim critic is grateful for) and on the whole, gives us a lavishly costumed and fully realized cinematic outing whose agile camerawork and charismatic leads demand the biggest screen you can find. What an absolute treat!

Also Read:
CinemaCon: Paramount, Warner and Disney Are Placing Big Bets in Las Vegas