Polite Society: A Heist Film Has Never Been This Funny [Sundance Review]

Polite Society still of Ria (Priya Kansara) in a fight pose.

Polite Society, written and directed by Nida Manzoor premiered at Sundance 2023. The movie takes one of the supposed happiest days and upends it with brawls and laughs. This is not a serious film. Instead, the movie emphasizes exaggerated drama. From the score to dialogue to action, it’s a joyride. While the evil master plan’s reveal might feel like a “that’s it” moment, it’s an ideal accompaniment. Darker versions of this premise exist, but Polite Society invigorates its film with distinctive comedic flair enlivened by the cast and unique perspective. 

Polite Society Has the Bonds of Sisters

Ria Khan’s (Priya Kansara) dream is to be a stuntwoman. Through ups and downs, her life is relatively good. Some conflicts arise between her Pakistani parents and her and her sister, Lena (Ritu Arya). But there is love. Ria trains and uploads videos of her training. Lena recently dropped out of art school and tries to regain her inspiration. The pair inspire each other to continue their artistic pursuits. Lena even helps record Ria’s training videos. Using scenes of the sisters sparring and dancing, Polite Society stresses the strength of their bond, which is about to be tested.  

Circumstances soon change. Their mother, Fatima (Shobu Kapoor), forces them to attend what Ria describes as a “hoity-toity” Eid celebration. Fatima tries to fit in with the other British Pakistani mothers at a luncheon. But the others are wealthier and favor appearances and tradition even moreso than Fatima. So when Raheela (Nimra Bucha) extends an invitation to her soiree, Fatima demands her daughters attend. At this event, Lena meets Raheela’s son, Salim (Akshay Khanna). His charm soon sweeps Lena off her feet, and she agrees to marry him. 

A Rush To Crush The Altar

Ria is anything but ecstatic at her sister’s impending nuptials. Leading up to the engagement, the siblings argue. Ria resents her sister’s changes. But Ria’s anger is not wholly unfounded. During the Eid party, she enters a study. On the table, she sees headshots of eligible women at the party, including Lena. Ria recruits her closest friends, Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri). They plot to dismantle the relationship. But except for Ria, no one else sees an issue with the marriage. They’re not wrong that Ria is upset about losing her independent sister. But something else is afoot.   

Polite Society still of Ria (Priya Kansara) in a fight pose.
Priya Kansara stars as Ria Khan in director Nida Manzoor’s POLITE SOCIETY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Parisa Taghizadeh/FOCUS FEATURES LLC. Sundance Festival 2023

Often, when women fall in love, they change. Usually, it’s for the worse, to conform to their partner’s wishes. So Ria’s anger is not unsubstantiated. Nor is she wrong that Lena’s uncertainty about her value as an artist leaves her vulnerable. During vulnerable times, it’s easy for others to take advantage. That and Salim’s very close relationship with his mom are red flags. Pity Lena does not see that. Though exaggerated, Polite Society keeps the story’s heart centered around the siblings. The emotional undercurrent makes you cheer for them even when they fight. 

As the situation spirals, a conceited Raheela threatens Ria. Though their initial plans failed, Ria realizes she has no choice. She has to count on herself and her friends to fix this. She must stop her sister from marrying Salim. So they plot to kidnap the bride on her wedding day. All hell breaks loose once the wedding day arrives. The action and comedy make the film work, but it is only possible with the cast’s performances. 

Jolly Fun With A Heartfelt Message

Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya make you want to laugh and cry a little. Their performances are the anchor of the movie. Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri are equally funny as Ria’s friends and partners in crime. Mothers, Shobu Kapoor and Nimra Bucha, are both outstanding. Shobu exudes natural humor, and Nimra is dramatically evil. Fight sequences are over-the-top and fun, paying homage to action films like The Matrix and even hints of Sidekicks as Ria emails her real-life stuntwoman hero, Eunice Huthart. 

Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society is an achievement of comedy and action entertainment that cheers independence. Guys are inconsequential at best and, at worst, creepy momma’s boys seeking to wreak havoc. The focus on the girls and women harnesses that flame of sisterly solidarity on screen but also ignites the embers in the viewer. Smartly written, with care taken to play up the fantastical elements, this movie is sheer joy. With the hilarious music and bigger-than-life fonts announcing battles and chapters on screen, you can’t stop laughing. With a women-centered tale with heart and a never-give-up theme, Polite Society sends a message as it inspires laughter and applause.  

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