'Polite Society' Review
April 18, 2023
This review was originally published at the 2023 Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Film Festival. Focus Features will release the film in theaters on April 28.
With its chapter structure and font, mariachi-infused soundtrack, and kung-fu action sequences, it’s easy to see the influence of Quentin Tarantino all over writer/director Nida Manzoor’s feature debut Polite Society, which is making its way into theaters after the world premiere at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival. Of course, Mr. QT doesn’t have a monopoly on those stylings, but there’s about as much Kill Bill here as there was in the actual Kill Bill.
The Bride in this case is Ria Khan, a British-Pakistani teenager who has dreams of becoming the world’s greatest stunt woman. With her parents and everyone else expecting her to be the stereotypical middle eastern doctor, Ria’s only supporter comes in the form of her sister Lena, who’s losing ground on her dream of being an artist. It’s always been the two of them against the world, making it that much tougher when Lena becomes smitten with the pretty boy son of a family friend.
But can this love actually be real? Ria doesn’t think so, as someone as intelligent and creative as Lena would never give up on their dreams for a man. But this man is also a pediatric geneticist, an Olympic-level athlete, and a world-class charmer, so it’s not that far-fetched for any woman to be interested in him. All those perfect qualities only further bolster Ria’s defiant stance, and it seems that it'll be up to her alone to stop the impending marriage.
Ria’s Ocean’s Eleven-sized plan leads to many hilarious hijinks, including her breaking into a mansion like a ninja and donning a fake mustache in the men’s locker room. It’s all infectiously fun, boosted by the overwhelming sense of sisterly affection and womanhood that Manzoor includes within her script. Things grind to a halt for a while during the middle portions as Ria endlessly yells “You have to believe me!” (how many times have we heard that one before?) to everyone that can’t understand why she isn’t happy about her sister’s marriage.
The antics only get crazier as time goes on, with wirework stunts and zippy editing by Robbie Morrison propelling the chaotic nature of the situation. The action set pieces are Street Fighter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with a sprinkling of comedic wit. Priya Kansara, who, like Mansoor, is also making her feature debut, is a triumph in the central role. She has a wide-eyed wit about her, heightening any scene no matter the requirement.
Polite Society is an impressive debut from all those involved, as it’s only slightly undone by minor problems that are symptoms of its ambitions. It’s both a takedown and love letter to the works of Jane Austen, making a delectable time out of having its cake and eating it too.