It’s great to see a movie so full of exuberance. Director Nida Manzoor has cut her teeth as a British TV writer and director, but with her feature film debut, Polite Society, the chance to throw it all out there has been taken. This clever action-comedy is bursting with life stemming from how various films and filmmakers are referenced, combined with the choice to imbue this movie with British-Pakistani culture. As a result, there’s a lot to like in this original story dealing with everything from the bond between siblings to reaching one’s potential.
Priya Kansara stars as Ria Khan, a teenage girl who practices and films her martial arts training in an effort to become a stuntwoman. Ria is very close with her sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), but that’s about to change. Lena has gotten engaged to Salim (Akshay Khanna), taking time away from the sisters. Even worse, Ria strongly suspects that Salim’s mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha), has a sinister plot in mind for Lena. It will be up to Ria to prove this, meaning she and her friends may have to resort to stealth missions and fights to get answers.
The thing to emphasize about Polite Society is how fun it is. This film is fast on its feet and keeps up its pace as we connect with the various characters and watch the plot unfold. There’s a natural energy to all of this, which Manzoor can convey thanks to her team. Between the editing, the cinematography, and the clear stylized choices being delivered through the writing, camera moves, and visual effects, it’s not hard to associate this movie with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, let alone Jackie Chan or Robert Rodriguez movies. It’s in the spirit of a genre film as far as maintaining a heightened sense of reality.
Still, to make this feel relatable and get by on a budget that’s a fraction of what some of these bigger-name filmmakers get to work with, Polite Society relies on wit as much as it has heart. I enjoyed the verbal sparring between characters, particularly given that representation doesn’t always equate to digging in on the different cultures on display. This movie wants to present people with particular backgrounds and what makes them unique while still showing what can have them stand right up with everyone else when it comes to broad comedy, slick fight scenes, or anything else that has a grip over mainstream geek culture.
In doing so, this film depends on the spirit and attitude of Kansara’s Ria. Playing this role means having the strength and vigor to match the comedic bent of the movie. It also means taking the character to heart so that the emotional element is not lost. I cared about Ria’s quest to free her sister from a suitor she has deemed unworthy. Watching her parents’ reactions hit as needed, given that thematic aspect of the feature. It was also crucial for me to see Ria’s journey in landing the perfect high kick when the time called for it.
While not action-packed, I appreciated how this movie always felt on the verge of action breaking out and knew what to do with the settings and equipment available. By the time Polite Society does decide to explode with its major set pieces, in particular the big third-act finale, it’s thanks to what’s been done with the characters and the story that I was as into it as I was. Manzoor and her team may not have everything worked out when showing off spectacular fight choreography (it can be a little repetitive to see some of the same moves in different scenes). However, that energy I’ve mentioned and the thrill of where it’s all going allows the movie to land its punches in the right place.
Polite Society is a genre film that blends all sorts of ideas. There’s the martial arts action side, the coming-of-age comedy, and a bit of a mystery thrown in, among other elements. Grasping onto the societal commentary taking place is important in its own way, but this film is much more a celebration of British Pakistani-Muslim culture with little time to delve into what effect is occurring in the expansive U.K. society around them. What matters most is enjoying what can be taken away from this whip-smart flick about a schoolgirl who wants to be a stuntwoman and how it’s handled with plenty of confidence and bold choices to deliver laughs and action.