Glasgow 2023

Polite Society review – incisive but not quite iconic action-comedy

Two sisters fall out over an impending marriage in writer-director Nida Manzoor's confident yet comically uneven feature debut

Surely none of us should complain at seeing more coming-of-age movies that feature extensive hand-to-hand combat. Thankfully, there’s a freshness to Police Society, the debut feature from TV's We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor, that extends beyond its surface-level genre-mashing. British-Pakistani teenager Ria (Priya Kansara), a wannabe stuntwoman and martial arts maniac, is pleased to have her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) back from art school. But her joy is shattered when Lena announces her engagement to a handsome, successful doctor, Salim (Akshay Khanna).

Suspicions of foul play in Lena’s hastily escalated marriage plans seize Ria, but she struggles to convince people she isn’t just reluctant to let Lena have a life that doesn’t prioritise her. As attempts to sabotage her sister’s happiness only make Ria look more desperate – largely thanks to Salim’s doting but malevolent mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha) – Polite Society relishes in upping the fantastical elements of its story, making choices that audiences will either love or be confounded by.

Polite Society boasts one of the strongest British ensemble casts in memory, as every main role gets a chance to shine. Ria and Lena’s parents (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) have exceptional comic delivery, and enjoy brilliant chemistry with the central sisters. Salim and Raheela have tapped into some deliriously fun villainous energy, where every eyebrow raise and cackle brims with confidence. But the film belongs to Kansara and Arya, who bring the complicated sisterhood to life in all its petty woundedness and fierce loyalty. To give such a loud comic performance, a young actor has to have a lot of trust in their director; here’s hoping Manzoor continues to collaborate with Kansara in the future.

Where Polite Society suffers, however, is in its insistence of loud comedy and its confused relationship with its more pulpy influences. There’s definitely a difference between utilising cringe comedy and telling jokes that make your audience cringe, and while Manzoor’s energetic comic voice elicits many laughs, the choice to heighten every comic performance in such a loopy film really isn’t necessary. A few characters, at least the ones with little agency or identity, are dialled up to extremes – as if Manzoor isn’t totally comfortable with the inherent silliness of the teen action story on its own.

While Polite Society benefits from Manzoor's incisive and funny observations on Pakistani family and culture, the action-adventure plot seems strangely devoid of similar cultural touchstones. References to Kim Jee-woon, wuxia movies and Indian cinema all make appearances, but the actual story is overly similar to most heightened British capers. It would have been nice to see, especially in the third act, a film more in conversation with the brilliant motifs and archetypes of Asian action cinema. As a result, Polite Society is an amusing, affecting, and confident feature debut for Manzoor and a strong calling card for its cast – but it’s missing the necessary ingredients to make it iconic.

Polite Society was screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas on 7 April.

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