Polite Society

Polite Society is a kickass action-comedy anchored by a star-making performance

3.5 out of 5 stars

With the same attitude and energy of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Polite Society creates a rambunctious and energetic film for young girls. Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) always dreamed of being a stunt performer. Alone in her room, sometimes with the help of her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), she creates martial arts videos for her YouTube channel. Soon though, Ria’s dreams are threatened not only by mounting obstacles in achieving her dream but also the impending arranged marriage of her sister Lena. 

Polite Society is anything but boring, throwing at the wall nearly every conceivable genre, from action to musical to comedy to sci-fi to heist. Fuelled by the boundless energy of Ria, in a star-making performance by Priya Kansara, the movie overflows with creativity. The action, central to Ria’s dream and journey, feels vibrant and cartoonish. Working within the imaginative realm of hyper-reality, every movement and every emotion feels dialled up to 11.

The movie doesn’t lose sight of its adolescent perspective. Ria, a high school student in the U.K., struggled to assert her autonomy when she was very little. Her oversized ambitions conflict with her parents expectations but also those of her school. Despite all her efforts, she seems constantly pulled towards being a doctor — a fate, in her mind, worse than death. As the title might suggest, Ria struggles to find her place within “polite society,” which in this case refers to the expectations and hierarchies of the Pakistani diaspora. The title has a double meaning though, similarly evoking the irony-laden novels about marriage and courtship of Jane Austen.

Polite Society poster 2

Though often broadly farcical, the film rarely loses sight of its emotional core, rooted in the love and antagonism between siblings. Ria and Lena are not only credible as sisters due to the familiar chemistry between the lead actors, but in the writing, which emphasizes sibling discord as much as it does harmony. Though similar in many ways — fiercely independent, moody and rebellious — the sisters also see in each other their own worst qualities. The impossible standards they hold each other to reflects anxieties about their own insecurities. 

Polite Society feels very much intended for a teen audience. It channels dialled-up emotions from that era and the micro-pressures of navigating pre-adulthood when the world seems limitless but also just out of reach. Much like Scott Pilgrim, Polite Society leans heavily into silliness. It’s absurd and over-the-top, pushing anxieties to limits well beyond reason. This contributes to the film’s sense of fun but occasionally feels limiting, as the kitchen sink approach to storytelling undercuts some of the film’s emotional core, particularly as things reach for increasingly strange territory in the third act.

Yet, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with the characters and the enthusiasm behind the film. It feels fresh and surprising. The performances are all-around incredibly playful and earnest, the writing and charectizations original and relatable. The action and dance sequences, in particular, demonstrate far more kinetic awareness than nearly any Marvel film — where the action is muddled, unfocused and unwatchable. Each action sequence is not only rooted in character, but is beautifully choreographed as well. 

In a cinematic landscape that’s often grey and uninteresting, Polite Society is vibrant. It’s colourful and charismatic, a decadent treat for the young at heart. As this is director Nida Manzoor’s feature debut, it’s also an incredibly promising career start. She has a great eye and a great sense of dynamic rhythm. Though the film can be a bit too silly and sometimes slacks in pacing, it’s overall a fun experience. 

Polite Society (directed by Nida Manzoor)

Polite Society opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 28.

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