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Sundance 2023: Polite Society, My Animal

Nida Manzoor’s “Polite Society” is the kind of film I didn’t know I wanted, in part because no one has made anything quite like it before. Manzoor’s influences have had similar sense and sensibilities—Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, for starters—but who has mixed Jane Austen courtship with marital arts melees quite like this? Having premiered at Sundance in its Midnight section, “Polite Society” is a genre-mixing delight, made possible by Manzoor’s dedication to her characters, story, and wild premise. Manzoor previously won over TV audiences with her comedy series "We Are Lady Parts," and she's primed to do that with fellow movie geeks with "Polite Society."

Priya Kansara is the center of this movie as Ria, a schoolgirl who dreams of being a stunt woman. “Polite Society” is a great example of how a character’s POV can shape a movie, and in this case, she sees the world as something of an action film. When she fights a bully in school, it becomes a giddy mix of wire-fu and slow-motion and stuff that usually only makes sense in action movies. But here it’s inspired and spiky, without being too enamored with its concept. 

Ria deeply loves her older artist sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), who helps film Ria's stunt videos. But she's mortified when Lena falls for a slimy bachelor whose mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha) has a wicked smile and an even more dominating social prowess. She thinks something wicked is going on, and with her two friends they investigate his skeeziness. He’s just too good to be true, and her sister Lena seems brainwashed. It’s much worse than she thinks, and her desire to kick ass becomes a type of comical self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“Polite Society” is the kind of action-comedy that gets nuttier and nuttier, especially as Ria’s inclinations become a hilarious self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not entirely sure "Polite Society" nails its reality-breaking evolution as it becomes a full-on action movie, but it does make for a wild third act where Manzoor shows plenty of chops with fast fights and punchy jokes. One final note: the film is set for release in April of this year, and I would advise skipping the trailer if you can help it. 

Jacqueline Castel’s feature debut “My Animal,” which also premiered in the Midnight section, looks at one high schooler’s secret life as a werewolf, and places it inside a coming-of-age story about her deeper cravings. For one, Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) wants to be a goalie, and she has been practicing for it for a long time with her father and twin brothers. But she also has an eye for a figure skater named Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), who is caught up with the rougher dudes in their cold Canadian town, but wants to be close with Heather. Their connection makes for emotional, romantic, and sometimes trippy scenes that show off Castel’s promise for creating mood and generating style in a horror context. These components, along with the performances from Menuez and Stenberg, are sound enough, even when the movie struggles to become more than just another high school werewolf tale. 

In a gripping opening sequence, we see Heather turn into a werewolf. Castel creates terror without showing the transformation in full; it's about the worry on her parents’ faces. They’ve done this before. It’s wonderfully ominous, and the synth-heavy score by Augustus Miller takes after it later by sounding like an animal breathing, getting ready to strike. But this is not a sinister case of being a werewolf, it’s more like a social curse. Heather has to chain herself up at night, and she can’t hang out past midnight. Heather is an otherwise amiable outcast, and Castel’s movie is very loving of her. 

More than a story about Heather’s cravings, the film is better as a tale about the secrets that families keep. Jae Matthews’ script fashions an intricate family dynamic between Heather, her two siblings (Charles F. Halpenny and Harrison W. Halpenny), her supportive father Henry (Stephen McHattie, who is both heartbreaking and charmingly funny) and her mother Patti (Heidi von Palleske), whose alcoholism becomes the more public shame for the family. The whole werewolf thing is a poignant, shared experience by the family, and it can make for warm jokes when the father alludes to it or great pain when the mother raises it with shame. 

“My Animal” pulls back on the werewolf focus to give this part some room, and to fashion a tender connection between Jonny and Heather. But once the movie has to get back to the promise of a werewolf, it loses considerable steam in its third act when it’s trying to tie everything together. Castel’s developing signature becomes most apparent through style, and “My Animal” emphasizes how much she's ready to sink her teeth into a more original premise. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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