Reverberating with heightened energy and playful comedy, Nida Manzoor’s (We Are Lady Parts) delivers an electrifying feature debut with Polite Society. Possessing so much personality that it threatens to spill over, the plot revels in its gleeful absurdism and refuses to slow down to allow viewers time to adjust. The message is clear: you’re either along for the ride or being left behind.
It’s in your best interest to hold on tight.
Priya Kansara stars as Ria, a determined young woman whose dream is to become a famous stuntwoman. Her current goal? Landing a backwards jump kick perfected by her idol for her Youtube channel. Her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) has recently dropped out of art school and is suffering from the ennui that follows deviating from life’s supposed “plan.” The two are tightly bound, perpetually in one another’s orbits. Ria admires her older sister and has her attention all to herself as she helps record her for her videos. This changes with the introduction of Salim (Akshay Khanna,) a charming young doctor who Lena quickly falls for, the two are engaged and ready to move to Singapore after just a month of dating.
Hardly a dent has been made into the runtime at this point, but Ria’s character has been so well-defined by the script and Kansara’s performance that we’re well aware of her temper – she’s not going to take this well. And, for a moment, with all of the referential nods to Jane Austen, it’s easy to believe that she is just being a jealous younger sister. Her distrust of Salim manifests itself in larger-than-life scenarios, from trying to dig up dirt to planting evidence of infidelity. In her mind, Lena isn’t just getting married and leaving her life – she’s leaving Ria behind in particular. An even bigger concern is her inability to understand how their ideals and life goals diverge so drastically – because what does it mean for Ria if her older sister isn’t the beacon of the ideal person she’d like to become?
No matter what, baked into the script and the coming-of-age genre’s DNA, there’s a poignant story of growing up, coming to terms with who one’s siblings are outside of shared memories, the fear of not being good enough, and the strength it takes to chase a dream. Manzoor doesn’t rest on easy beats, however, instead undertaking the Herculean effort of combining elements for a multitude of genres, with slapstick style, and over-the-top action sequences, while never losing the heart of the story. Because Ria is kind of right not to trust Salim, and the plan to save her sister is wildly hilarious in execution.
Not once does Polite Behaviour attempt to try and define or declare a genre for itself. It’s not trying to be the next anything and, rather, falls into a mold it’s made for itself.
The level of detail and fluidity of movement throughout is noteworthy in particular. Obviously for the fight sequences which only grow increasingly outlandish, but also in how characters tumble in and out of frame, Ria and Lena all clumsy limbs. The costuming by PC Williams and Justin Selway is superb, and not just when the characters don their formal wear. But from the starch-pressed eyesores of the school uniforms to their styles, Ria’s in particular, each character’s personality is finely honed.
There are some fairly imaginative decisions towards the end of the film that nearly threatens to derail the smooth narrative we’ve experienced thus far, but credit to Manzoor who is unrelenting in buckling down on creating dizzying set pieces and moments of spectacle. Does the plot grow a little silly by the time the third act rolls around? Sure. That said, the story maintains itself by never losing the thread of its righteous, feminist rage. If anything, the heightened elements work in the film’s favor because it so adequately captures Ria’s fantasy-bound mindset.
The entire cast is incredible, but this is Kansara’s show. This being her third credit as an actress (following bit roles in Bridgerton and The Bastard Son and the Devil Himself) her promise is astonishing as she deftly balances precise physicality (made more impressive by how gracelessly Ria can move about the world), wicked humor, and warmth.
Polite Society succeeds in sticking to its tone and going big and broad with ideas while keeping relationships as the core element. Each punch and flying kick may arrive with its own invisible onomatopoeia, but the sisterly bond is heartfelt, and its lasting impression is just as strong as any one of Ria’s kicks.
Polite Society arrives in theaters April 28, 2023. Watch the trailer below.
Find more of our Sundance 2023 coverage here.
Featured image Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh