Doctor, lawyer, scientist. These are all typical career paths for teenagers. But for Ria Khan, the only career path for her is the one that leads to her becoming a spectacular stuntwoman. She’s taking karate classes, practicing her skills on YouTube, and emailing her stuntwoman idol in hopes of securing an internship. But her career path unexpectedly starts to derail when her sister, Lena, becomes engaged. The new film from Nida Manzoor, Polite Society, is a high-octane coming-of-age/heist story that is both insanely fun and utterly exhausting.
Priya Kantara plays the aforementioned Ria, a young woman with an incredibly active imagination who scoffs at her parents’ traditional Pakistani beliefs and is bolstered by her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya). Her sister, having dropped out of art school, is always up for helping her film videos and offers support for her stunts career often lacking from her parents. When Lena gets engaged after a whirlwind romance, spending less and less time with Ria and more and more time with her fiancé Salim and his mother Raheela, she becomes convinced that Lena must be saved from their clutches.
Stylistically, Polite Society feels like we are living in Ria’s head. Everything seems heightened and dramatized as if we’re seeing our story from her point of view. Conversations are often accompanied by dramatic sound effects, plenty of whooshes, and dramatic chords, adding an element of artificial drama that contributes to an upbeat, fun tone. When conversations aren’t cutting it, there are elaborate and intense fight scenes between characters that again seem to illustrate we are seeing things from Ria’s point of view. Certainly, a film grounded in reality wouldn’t have sisters throwing each other through doors or characters’ ability to shed very little blood after getting thrown against a glass bookcase.
Polite Society is all the better for eschewing realism. The dramatics and fight scenes keep things light and fun. It only works because Manzoor is careful to keep a real story at its heart. Behind the whooshes and fight choreography are real moments of conflict with Ria as she grapples with watching her best friend and biggest champion wholeheartedly walk into a new, traditional life with her fiancé. Convinced there must be something sinister behind this change, Ria’s sister, parents, and friends try to make her see that change is inevitable. The final act, with plenty of action, suspense, and fighting, creates a wonderful spectacle but also undoes some of its emotional work in the process. And while the high-octane tone makes this a fun watch, it keeps the energy so high for so much of the film that its moments of realism feel like a welcome break in the craziness.
Even though the film keeps its high energy almost the entire time, it’s clear the cast is having a ball. Kantara is just the right mix of earnest and annoying as Ria and Ritu Arya is fantastic and nuanced as Ria’s sister Lena. As the accused “big bad”, Nimra Bucha is relishing the role of Lena’s future mother-in-law Raheela. She leans into making Raheela practically a cartoon villain with a poisonous smile. Yet at the same time, she keeps us and Ria guessing; maybe she’s just an overprotective mother?
Polite Society is many things. A coming-of-age story, an action film, a heist movie, and a story about a Pakistani family balancing tradition with modernity. This combination makes for an incredibly fun, if exhausting, watch. The amusement on set radiates to the audience and its unique point-of-view makes it one not to miss.