Its intimate tale of sisterly love refracted through the lens of a half a dozen genres — fantasy! action! social horror! science fiction! coming-of-age! — Polite Society bursts at the seams with irrepressible charm, energy and a winning buoyancy that keeps it afloat during its heavier moments. This impressive, if slightly unwieldy debut feature from writer-director Nida Manzoor, is a thoughtful showcase for South Asian family dynamics and the obstacles to creative expression, singular ideas that emerge intact from the swirl of genre mashups.
Younger sister Ria (Priya Kansara) harbours dreams of being a stuntwoman, a non-traditional career choice met with some skepticism by her parents (Shobu Kappor, Jeff Mirza). Older sister Lena (Rita Arya) is a recent art-school dropout, contemplating the harsh reality that she might not be as good as she thought. The bond between them is etched with affection, Lena helping Ria shoot amateur stunt videos for YouTube after school, Ria adamant in her defense of Lena’s artistic talent. The film, deliberately heightened and steeped in playful excess, combines the stylistic flourishes of Edgar Wright with the movie-loving heart of Vasan Bala. The eventual showdowns call to mind Ms Marvel, another winsome Pakistani coming-of-age tale with a scrappy teenage girl and Nimra Bucha in a villanous role. All this creates the impression of one long flight of fantasy concocted inside the mind of a South Asian child pressured into studying medicine and becoming a doctor, entertaining an elaborate alternate life instead. Stunts are performed in slow motion, dialogues delivered with dramatic zooms and scenes flit from one to the next with quick cuts. Ria’s best friends have the habit of framing situations in snappy bits of voiceover narration. Even seemingly ordinary scenarios are staged for maximum dramatic effect.
In Manzoor’s lovingly crafted film, however, this filminess doesn’t feel like an affect, but a real, if not rooted, way of living. For Ria, maybe it’s only natural to turn to the movies and their orderly three-act structure to make sense of the messiness of life. Maybe she’s well-aware of the boxed-in limitations of her identity as a first-generation Pakistani Briton and sees film for the limitless creative outlet it is. Or maybe any adolescent just wants to envision themselves as someone else when they’re in that phase of nagging uncertainty over how their own lives will pan out.
Ria’s nemesis arrives in the form of Salim (Akshay Khanna), a charming doctor who begins courting Lena and seems just a little too good to be true. At first, it isn’t Salim himself, but the changes in Lena’s sister that raise some red flags. She’s growing out her choppy bangs, trading hoodies for cardigans and, worst of all, contemplating giving up her dreams of being an artist so she can be a housewife. Ria has an astute understanding of the conservative household her sister’s about to marry into, one that will no doubt curtail her free spirit inch by inch until she’ll question whether it ever existed to begin with. With Lena refusing to see what Ria does, it’s up to her to uncover Salim’s secret.
Provided, of course, that he has one. The first half of the film, a riveting fantasy-action-heist movie, casts doubt over whether Ria’s really onto something, or just hoping to. Is she worried that Salim will hurt her sister? Or that Lena’s marriage will hurt their sisterly bond? Through Ria, the film becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of being so caught up in invented fictions, you lose sight of what’s real.
When Polite Society does arrive at its revelation, it’s with a bluntness uncharacteristic of the same genres it so elegantly borrows from. Manzoor’s caustic commentary on how women of a marriageable age are viewed begins to undercut the lighthearted silliness of the first half. Despite the engaging fights and a cheeky ‘Maar Dala’ sequence enlivened by Kansara’s wholehearted dedication to the bit, the tone falters when the stakes, earlier the result of childish shenanigans, now become all-too real. The previously heightened tone jars, with scenes that play out like vivid daydreams are set in the real world.
The strength of Polite Society’s writing, however, is that no matter how many times Ria gets knocked down, you want to believe that the plucky character, and the equally game actress playing her, will get back up. And that the girl who’s spent a lifetime lost in detailed fantasies will direct this movie to an ending worthy of her imagination.
This review was originally published on 26 January 2023 as part of Film Companion's coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival