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‘Polite Society’ review: Two sisters are the fire and the fury of Nida Manzoor’s upbeat action-comedy

Writer/director Nida Manzoor’s coming-of-age feature smashes the patriarchy with style, homages, and flair.

Parisa Taghizadeh

What’s wrong with reaching for your wildest dreams? Ria Khan (Kansara) doesn’t have a problem with that. As a high school student in London, Ria aspires to be a stunt woman, take karate classes, and has a YouTube channel to capture all her kung-fu aspiring escapades. On the flip side, her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is going through an exponential crisis, dropping out of art school because she thinks she’s not good enough. Through her sadness, Lena still musters up enough energy to help record and hang out with Ria. It’s this relationship between them that writer/director Nida Manzoor builds the entertaining Polite Society.

Part of the film has a cartoonish, over-the-top spirit that illuminates many fight sequences. At the same time, much of the narrative deconstructs the patriarchal standards within Pakistani culture. What if the wishes for yourself that were considered farfetched allowed the room to breathe and thrive? It’s a uniform message Manzoor takes and adds her cultural and thematic flair. When Ria is not paling around with her friends Clara and Alba (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri), she’s trying to escape the wrath of a school bully named Kovacs (Shona Babayemi). A quarrel in the library between them is the setting in which the first fight sequences of Polite Society happen. You’ll wonder how characters get up from some of these blows, but the suspension is not stretched out of believable territory.

Ria and Lena’s parents, Fatma and Raff (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza), have supported their daughters' paths. Although, they do insist Ria start focusing on becoming a doctor instead. However, pressure comes from Fatma's discussion with other mothers about her daughters' futures. (mainly from the wealthy Raheela (Nimra Bucha)) Ria and Lena attend an EID party at their mother's behest. It is there where Lena and Raheela’s outgoing son geneticist son Salim (Akshay Khanna) start to hit things off. As things progress rather quickly, this new addition starts interfering with Ria's plans for her and her sister.

Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

I mean, Lena is an artist, right? Ria’s furious attachment to ambition shows that her heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, that lands her into a lot of trouble due to hilarious effect. Manzoor operates as if she’s aware that Polite Society operates out of the influences of many coming-of-age teen comedies before it. There is a lot you will recognize, but the ingredients of this film make things a winner. Things get broken down into chapters, while in the middle, Ria and her friends devise many scenarios to uncover something dirt on Salim. Where some films place homages to different genres and pop culture tentpoles without much context, Manzoor seems to make everything work to create a unique experience.

There are slow-motion skirmishes, choreographed dance numbers, paths of drama and emotional scenes, and a tip of the cap to superhero origin stories without the powers and healing to boast. Polite Society begins with Ria unable to land a roundhouse kick made famous by the stunt woman she looks up to. By the film's end, the moment feels triumphant and not overused. Residing in the film is a Sci-Fi element that doesn’t land as neatly as all the other ingredients do. You will enjoy all the points where it does.

In all actuality, sometimes you want to beat up outdated standards rather than talk a hole through them. This is what Polite Society does – it takes an axe through all the criteria of what women are supposed to go towards.

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