- Nate Adams
'Polite Society' review: Energetic comedy loses its identity
Courtesy of Focus Features
“Polite Society” marks the feature debut from British writer-director Nida Manzoor and with it comes a fresh, emerging voice unafraid of taking some bold swings. For the first hour of her new movie, things are breezy, calculated, and riff on Edgar Wright jump cuts with a tinge of Quentin Taraintino. It feels like its own thing until a major twist reveals itself midway through act three and suddenly we’re left to question the tone this movie is trying to lock down.
Manzoor takes all the hallmarks of Bollywood epics and throws them in a blender with martial arts flicks and coming-of-age-comedies, and initially, “Polite Society” seems to be in a league of its own, complete with a polished spin on the concerned sibling trying to stop their older sister from getting married ploy. Throw in the whip smart editing, pacing, solid performances, and “Polite Society” beams with potential.
Newcomer Priya Kansara, plays younger sister Ria Khan, a fierce teenager who dreams of becoming a stuntwoman (her parents want her to be a doctor of course), even going as far as to film various YouTube clips with the help of big sister Lena (Ritu Arya). The two are very close, especially after Lena dropped out of art school and returned home, much to the chagrin of their traditional parental figures (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza).
At school, Ria has spitfire energy and persistence. Manzoor leans into these traits in a silly, hyper stylized display of schoolyard fighting (and features a few too many nods to Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”). For a minute, you’d assume “Polite Society” was going to be this girl boss power play about adolescence that’s outfitted with a retro lens and imaginative fight sequences. Instead, the movie is about breaking up the ensuing marriage of Lena and Salim (Akshay Khanna), who is extremely wealthy thanks to his sniveling rich mother (played by Nimra Bucha) and is seemingly perfect in every way. Too good to be true? Perhaps.
Ria and her playful buddies (played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri) embark on various side quests to smear Salim’s name and find themselves entangled in a plot that comes so far out of left field, you’d assume Jordan Peele wrote it. This major leap into social horror is a bold move by the filmmaker, but it erases any goodwill mustered by its promising first half. The tonal balance and original infrastructure built during the first 45-minutes simply don’t mesh with whatever the hell is going on during the final leg. We didn’t need oddball commentary thrown in when the film thrived as it was closely following the sister dynamic.
High concept nonsense aside, “Polite Society” is moderately enjoyable and its acknowledgment of knocking off troupes (one character basically admits it) is the type of energy the reminder of the film could have used. The action is fairly spunky, Arya and Kansara make a great pair, and the stuntwomen inspired subplot is certainly welcome. Maybe in the future these artists can band together for something a little less messy and more concise in the genre it wants to explore.
POLITE SOCIETY is now playing in theaters.