When I first saw the trailer for Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society, I quietly thought it had the potential to catch some of the fire set by Everything Everywhere All at Once. Once Focus Features opted to release it in less than 1,000 theaters, all hope for that was lost. That isn’t a loss, however, for this is the kind of film that will slowly but surely find its audience and maybe inspire thinkpieces from sites like The AV Club down the road. I can see it now. The headline will ask the burning question: “How Did We Miss Polite Society ‘X’ Years Ago?”
Similar to the films of Edgar Wright, Polite Society refuses to be classified as or bound to a particular genre. It wants to be a martial arts movie, but also has strong elements of comedy, drama, action, suspense, and even underlying flirtations with thriller tendencies. It’s a confident, assured debut from the woman who gave us We Are Lady Parts, a British series about a group of Muslim women who start a punk rock band. It brims with color and sharp costume design, but is made special by how it converges those elements to push back against traditional, regressive cultural customs.
Writer/director Manzoor focuses on sisters Ria (Priya Kansara) and Lena (Ritu Arya). Ria dreams of becoming a stuntwoman like her idol Eunice Huthart, and her parents (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) can’t understand why. Ria has two close friends in Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) by her side, but no one supports her like Lena, who is happy to take videos of her combat for her YouTube channel. Lena had dreams of becoming an artist herself, but those dreams have been put on the shelf for now.
All seems workable until Lena meets and falls for Salim (Akshay Khanna), a wealthy beau known for womanizing. Ria senses something is off about him and his domineering mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha), early, and once she has the confirmation she needs, she goes full stuntwoman with a plot to ruin her sister’s wedding.
When Ria assumes the combat stance, stylized on-screen text appears, naming both fighters. This happens conservatively enough to be seen as a treat, but just frequent enough to be considered a martial arts movie. As important and interesting as the fight choreography are the abundance of costumes, the work of PC Williams. Ria dons more Americanized leisure-wear (baggy sweatpants, an oversized hoodie) at certain points and traditional Asian outfits and accessories at others. Both contribute to the film’s gorgeous visual style.
The best and most thematically significant fight is between Ria and Raheela, who has sacrificed so much for her son that she won’t let this petulant little girl ruin the arranged marriage she has plan for him. The two women are sharp contrasts. Where Ria wants her life to revolve around fighting, Raheela craves the more posh and conventional lifestyle. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Raheela’s point-of-view on the surface. However, when it’s revealed to be orchestrated through malicious and genetically manipulative intent, the showdown between the two women — enhanced by them both being in their flowing wedding attire — becomes symbolic of Ria fighting to liberate her older sister and fighting against the archaic notion that women have one track for their life and any other path is an affront.
Polite Society is more than just carefully constructed combat. The heart of this movie is the beautiful and believable sisterly relationship harbored by Ria and Lena. They’re two sisters that will help one another out with their exploits as quickly as they’ll smash one another’s head into a mirror, a wall, or whatever object is near. Priya Kansara shines in her feature debut, playing a lead that is strong because of her actions and not because Manzoor’s script tells us she is. Ritu Arya commendably illustrates the kind of ennui that young people — namely first and second generation immigrants — feel when their chosen path proves to be rockier than initially expected and something of a layover is in order. The two shine on-screen together.
Manzoor wears her influences on her sleeve, but never to the point where subtle callbacks to Quentin Tarantino’s framing, Jackie Chan-style fighting, or Hong Kong kung-fu flicks threaten to undermine the originality on display. Polite Society is a colorful cornucopia of mature themes and visuals that will go down as one of the best films you missed this year. My advice: change that as soon as you can.
NOTE: As of this writing, Polite Society is streaming on Peacock.
Starring: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Akshay Khanna, Nimra Bucha, Seraphina Beh, Ella Bruccoleri, Sally Ann, Shobu Kapoor, and Jeff Mirza. Directed by: Nida Manzoor.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!