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Polite Society

Nida Manzoor’s riotously funny and action-packed film “Polite Society” is a bold feature debut that defies categorization. At its core, it’s about the power of supportive sisters, but it goes on to critique the limitations of cultural, generational, and gendered expectations all between well-choreographed high kicks and punches. It’s an action comedy in the style of Edgar Wright mixed with the cross-cultural commentary of “Bend It Like Beckham,” the sibling dynamic of “Little Women,” and the defiance of a Jane Austen heroine carving a path for herself. But most importantly, it’s a damn good time at the movies. 

“Polite Society” follows the misadventures of Ria (Priya Kansara), a teenager who dreams of becoming a stunt woman. After school and hanging out with her close friends, Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), Ria often spends time in the company of her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), who supports and understands her like no one else in their family. Lena helps Ria hone in on her fighting persona, make videos for YouTube, and cheers her on from the sidelines. Their close-knit relationship feels like the only thing that makes sense in Ria’s life—until Lena locks eyes with Salim (Akshay Khanna), a wealthy suitor who whisks her off her feet. When Ria’s suspicions of his family’s dark intentions for Lena are confirmed, it’s up to our future stunt woman to save the day and stop her sister’s wedding. 

Manzoor, who wrote and directed “Polite Society,” broke out with the equally hilarious series “We Are Lady Parts,” which followed the formation of an all-women, all-Muslim punk band. The show’s whip-fast editing, comedic style, and witty dialogue form the essence of what makes “Polite Society” so brilliant. Manzoor reunites with several “We Are Lady Parts” collaborators, including editor Robbie Morrison and costume designer PC Williams, who brilliantly illustrate the young women learning to work together in “We Are Lady Parts” and brings an equal level of detail to the characters of “Polite Society.” From Ria’s baggy red-and-gray school uniform to her green and gold traditional South Asian ensemble when she’s about to crash the big day and fight her rival in an all-magenta brocade suit, Williams’ costume work emphasizes Manzoor’s sensibilities, adding to the movie’s visual aesthetics, the action sequences, and comedic elements. Cinematographer Ashley Conner ("The Miseducation of Cameron Post," "Madeline's Madeline") joins the crew to capture the vibrant whirls of fabrics in mid-air kicks, play up the heightened reality of heists, fights, and fantasy sequences, and close-up on Ria and Lena’s emotional journey. 

As director and screenwriter, Manzoor savors every ingredient of her film and its possibilities. Beyond the Jackie Chan-esque comic combats or perfectly villainous mother-in-law-to-be Raheela (Nimra Bucha), a lot is happening between the lines. Manzoor’s heroine has her own ideas about what she wants to do with her life, much to her parents’ disappointment, and their arguments are the same headaches of many first and second-generation children of immigrants saddled with great expectations. Despite her faults, Ria can see what her sister or her family does not: how wrong this “smarmy wanker” is for Lena. On a dating app profile, Salim looks like a dream—a doctor with a good heart, handsome looks, and a proud mom. But as any veteran of the swipe life can tell you, not everything is as it seems. Ria’s interest in less-feminine pursuits like fighting runs afoul of Raheela’s posh and mannered exterior, and her attempts to control the teen are to force her to become a more feminized obedient version of herself through threats of a torturous round of waxing and emotional manipulation. In Raheela’s view, women are nothing more than potential partners for her son, and Ria’s fight to liberate her sister is not just a rescue mission but a symbolic overthrow of this narrow, outdated prejudice.

With “Polite Society,” Manzoor writes her own destiny. She’s created an action-comedy heist hybrid that’s more about sisterly love than romance or uppercuts. In this flavorful milieu of genres, Manzoor emerges with a sensibility that’s uniquely hers and a thrill to watch. Kansara, also making her feature debut, brings an energetic presence to the screen, matching Manzoor’s irreverent humor and sharp dialogue with pitch-perfect delivery. Even at its most escapist moments, the movie feels like it’s pushing back on parental, cultural, and gendered expectations. Like Lena, “Polite Society” moves us to cheer Ria on to win and be herself.

In theaters now.

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Polite Society movie poster

Polite Society (2023)

Rated PG-13 for strong language, violence, sexual material, and some partial nudity.

103 minutes

Cast

Priya Kansara as Ria Khan

Ritu Arya as Lena

Shobu Kapoor as Fatima

Ella Bruccoleri as Alba

Seraphina Beh as Clara

Shona Babayemi as Kovacs

Nimra Bucha as Raheela

Jeff Mirza as Raff

Akshaye Khanna as Salim Shah

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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