Action Comedy Smashes the Patriarchy newsusface

The coming-of-age movie receives a multicultural punch in the face with Polite Society, a rambunctious affair about fighting the patriarchy and, just as importantly, the old-school tiger moms who support it.

Invigorated by Priya Kansara’s charming turn as a defiant girl who won’t do what they tell her, Nida Manzoor’s feature debut, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters Apr. 28, celebrates feminist independence and rage, even as it embraces the conventions of its many cinematic and pop-culture influences. Deftly straddling lines, it preaches individuality while simultaneously appreciating that, as one character states, “there’s a reason tropes are tropes—it’s because they work.”

In present-day London, Pakistani teen Ria Khan (Kansara) dreams of becoming a stuntwoman like her big-screen idol, spending all her free time training at a martial-arts dojo and making backyard videos in which she shows off her moves and tries, without much success, to execute an impressive reverse spinning roundhouse kick that’s equal parts Bruce Lee and Street Fighter.

Unfortunately, her career aspiration isn’t supported by almost anyone she knows outside her best friends Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh), as well as her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya). Laughed at by bully Kovacs (Shona Babeyemi) and criticized by her parents (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza), who’d prefer she do anything else with her life, Ria is under fire. Not that this dissuades her from her goal, given her belief that—as she proclaims in her performance clips—“I am the fury!”

Though she’s happy to be her kid sister’s videographer and join her in impromptu dance parties, Lena has her own cross to bear—namely, depression born from having dropped out of art school. Ria has faith in her sibling’s creative talents because she wants to imagine them as kindred against-the-grain souls who are defying cultural pressures in order to chart their own fulfilling, no-man-required courses. Consequently, when the girls are forced to attend an Eid Festival at the luxurious mansion of their mom’s friend Raheela (Nimra Bucha) and sparks fly between Lena and the host’s dashing geneticist son Salim (Akshay Khanna)—a triumph given how coveted he is by the area’s single women—Ria sees it as an affront and a betrayal, and thus immediately imagines Salim as Enemy Number One.

As boisterously conceived by Manzoor, Polite Society operates as a thrilling hybrid of teen comedy, Bollywood drama, superhero saga, kung-fu actioner, and video-game adventure, whose freewheeling spirit faintly recalls that of Everything Everywhere All at Once—minus that Oscar-winner’s strained, exhausting self-satisfaction. The only thing that’s arrogant about Manzoor’s film is Ria, who responds to Lena and Salim’s whirlwind courtship by doubling down on her objections. Kansara is bursting with personality, inhabiting Ria as a go-getter whose stubbornness and toughness are inextricably intertwined, and she generates regular laughs from her perfectly cartoonish scowls at Salim, his mom Raheela, and any other adolescent or adult who dares stand in her way.

Split into chapters and boasting skirmishes that are introduced with on-screen arcade-game titles (i.e., Kovacs Vs. Khan), Polite Society synthesizes elements from numerous sources in order to craft an assured tone that’s all its own.


Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

Despite self-consciously owning up to its own formulaic trajectory, Manzoor’s film realizes that rehashing old moves is smart so long as they’re gussied up with charisma and energy. Fortunately, it has both of those in spades, and puts them to good use once Ria convinces Alba and Clara to embark on a three-step plan to thwart Lena and Salim’s nuptials—a scheme that necessitates breaking into a gym locker room to steal the hunk’s laptop à la Ocean’s Eleven, albeit with goofier disguises and more awkward sexual tension. (One of the girls finds herself smack dab in the middle of a meat market.)

Manzoor’s direction is as confident as her writing, segueing on a dime between sitcom-y around-the-house exchanges and slow-motion-enhanced throwdowns between Ria and her adversaries; to the end, she maintains a proper balance between silliness and severity.

Polite Society loves its heroine for choosing to rebel against social, cultural and familial expectations, just as it brings together individuals from multiple walks of life—Pakistani and English, Black and white, male and female—to put a new spin on familiar material. At the same time, though, it views her through a variety of traditional cinematic lenses, transforming the proceedings into a tribute to the vitality of tried-and-true standards. In that regard, it’s the rare modern film that’s forward-thinking and yet avoids throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Ria’s fiery obstinance is her gift and her curse, and it eventually gets her into trouble once Lena agrees (in just a month’s time) to tie the knot with Salim and relocate to Singapore. Lena’s wedding is the setting for a smorgasbord-style climax that features a choreographed musical number, undercover espionage ruses, a kidnapping plot, and multiple battles between heroes and villains, not to mention a twist that further underscores the film’s guiding focus on female agency and, specifically, the positive and negative consequences of both striving for and stymying it.

To that end, Bucha quickly morphs from a haughty peripheral figure into a scene-stealing wonder, her giant smile and electric eyes casting Raheela as the embodiment of clingy, demanding, domineering South Asian motherhood run amok.


Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

Polite Society finally contends that women—and, by extension, their male partners and offspring—can only be truly happy if they’re given the opportunity to freely choose their destinies. In today’s #MeToo era, that may not seem like a particularly revolutionary idea. Yet in Manzoor’s chosen milieu, it resonates as a combative challenge to a deeply ingrained status quo. As a result, Ria’s desire to resolve conflicts and seek autonomy by trading blows with her enemies feels just right, especially since Manzoor’s writing has a witty sharpness to match her protagonist’s prickly boldness, highlighted by a spa day that amusingly mutates into a literal torture session.

Consigning its male players to the sidelines, Manzoor’s surefire crowd-pleaser understands that empowerment isn’t something that’s granted to people by others; it must be taken, often violently. It’s a feminist rallying cry that’s as furious as it is funny.

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