THE STORY – A London schoolgirl and tireless martial-artist-in-training, Ria Khan is determined to become a world-renowned stunt woman. She’s crushed when her big sister, Lena, drops out of art school, starts dating Salim — the charming, wealthy son of the prominent Shah family — and announces, after barely a month, that they plan to marry and move to Singapore! How could Lena abandon her artistic dreams to become some trophy wife? But Ria soon realizes that something isn’t right, leaving her no choice but to enlist her friends in a daring mission to kidnap Lena from her own wedding.
THE CAST – Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, Akshay Khanna, Seraphina Beh & Ella Bruccoleri
THE TEAM – Nida Manzoor (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
We’re in a renaissance of action movie franchises. Movies such as “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “John Wick: Chapter 4” have revived the box office more than the superhero genre has in years. With much-anticipated sequels “Fast X” and “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning: Part One” on the way this summer, as well as more superhero movies on the horizon, is there space for a lower-budget action film centered on someone not part of a franchise? The answer is yes! Enter “Polite Society,” the Sundance Film Festival action film from writer/director Nida Manzoor which centers on two British Pakistani sisters.
Aspiring stuntwoman Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) believes that she has to save her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), from her looming marriage after a brief dating period. When it’s revealed that there’s more going on behind the scenes of their courtship, Ria attempts to pull off the most elaborate heists to happen at a wedding, with the help of her friends, for the sake of sisterhood.
In an age where a new action film is coming out every month, audiences have seen an array of what the genre has to offer. For a first feature, there are some places in “Polite Society” where the action could be more fine-tuned. However, in the same sense, the stylized action itself specifically shows the DIY amateur nature of this stuntwoman-in-training. Ria is still honing her craft, and the action of “Polite Society” reflects that. There is an evident love for Edgar Wright’s style of filmmaking on display. Regarding the action, editing, and comedy, each work hand-in-hand as the film blends genres, making the scenes harmonious. The quick cuts and the chapter titles create a rhythm that keeps you engaged for its 103-minute runtime, thus allowing the sharp wit of Manzoor’s screenplay to really land.
There are no wasted characters in “Polite Society.” Each side character has a sense of humor and personality, making them well-rounded despite varying times on screen. Ria’s best friends, Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), match Ria’s intensity and spirited ideas of grandeur with exuberance. Even the school bully Kovacs, played by Shona Babayemi, has more going on with her than just facing off with Ria in the school library. Ria and Lena’s parents are also excellent sources of comedy, making this a well-rounded ensemble where everyone is committed to Manzoor’s vision.
When it comes to the antagonists, Nimra Bucha is every bit malicious in her role. As the dreaded future mother-in-law of Lena, she brings a specific type of menace to the role: the critical socialite who wants to see her son set up with the right match. She also leans into the camp of her character as a final boss against Ria’s fighting skills. Though, at times, the tone of “Polite Society” can seem over the top, it fits in nicely with the film’s overall style. In addition to Bucha, Akshay Khanna, as Lena’s husband-to-be, Salim, succeeds at flipping the switch from being a handsome bachelor to a cringey mama’s boy.
What makes this action-heist film stand out is not just its scrappy underdog nature or its international perspective but the authentic picture of sisterhood on display between Ria and Lena. Manzoor captures the imperfect, messy aspects of this specific relationship. Families may see each other through their high and low points, but there’s something more unique regarding a sibling relationship. Ria and Lena are refreshingly flawed – in fact, they’re their own kind of a mess which only adds to their relatability and rooting factor.
Ria is every bit the adorkable teenager who is passionate about her dreams as a professional stuntwoman. Priya Kansara plays her with genuine enthusiasm without ever pushing the tone too far into absurdity. What makes Ria such an endearing protagonist is the amount she cares about her craft is as much as she cares for her older sister. Ritu Arya taps well into the character’s early adult angst with the weight of disappointment Ria feels because of the directionless state Lena finds herself in at the film’s beginning. Lena is grappling with dropping out of art school; she’s insecure about her skills and what the future now holds for her. As Salim starts to bring her out of her depressed state, Lena leans on him and his mother for a sense of identity, much to Ria’s displeasure. As their relationship is threatened to change because of a new man in Lena’s life, the way Manzoor charts these sisters’ arcs comes across organically. One day they can dance around and goof off with each other, and the following week they can beat each other up. Both Kansara and Arya have natural chemistry with each other, making the emotional moments between them more affecting. These actresses bring out the best in each other’s characters while holding their own presence onscreen.
As a first-time director, Manzoor really shows that she has writing chops and technical skills on the level of someone more established like Edgar Wright. She has made an entertaining action film that celebrates her Pakistani roots with small details that find satisfying payoffs throughout the film. Even without the elements of a good action movie mixed with a healthy dosing of fun energy, “Polite Society” is still anchored by a tale of two sisters and how they fight for their relationship, as well as exploring what it looks like to chase after your dreams or even find a new one in the process. “Polite Society” doesn’t just pack a punch– it brings the fury.