Polite Society, the feature debut from British writer-director Nida Manzoor, traffics in several familiar lanes: the coming-of-age high school comedy, a Bollywood movie, the light gravity-bending and slo-mo shots of a martial arts flick. Its particular flavor, however, is immediately distinctive and winning – at least at first. The 104-minute film from the creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts has one of the most refreshing first halves of a comedy that I’ve seen, with a promising set-up: genuine sibling concern over what an older sister’s engagement means for their bond and creative dreams, crossed with a teenage girl’s capacity for self-centered fantasies.
The younger sister in question is Ria Khan, played by delightful newcomer Priya Kansara, a London-based Pakistani Muslim girl who dreams of becoming one of Britain’s top stuntwoman (in one of the film’s more successful bits, Priya’s unanswered feelings-dump emails to Britain’s actual top stuntwoman double as both voiceover and diary.) She’s close to Lena (Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya) in the spiky, secret-language way of two sisters against the world – Lena, recently returned home after dropping out of art school, will protest and spar with Ria but ultimately still films the amateur stunt videos for Ria’s YouTube channel, to the gentle chagrin of their more traditional career-seeking parents (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza).
The first 20 or so minutes are an instantly charming combination of school-girl melodramatics and heightened silliness with a martial arts bent, as if Scott Pilgrim met Sex Education or an Austenian marriage plot (the latter of which Ria openly detests). It’s a genuine pleasure to watch the angst and irrepressible energy of adolescence given the outlet of an imaginative martial arts battle, especially when Ria meets what feels to her like an existential threat: competition for Lena’s attention in the form of Salim (Akshay Khanna), a dashing doctor and the only son of the ominously rich and doting Shah matriarch (Nimra Bucha). Salim says all the right things and sweeps skeptical but aimless and self-doubting Lena off her feet; Ria is appalled.
Particular credit to the film’s playful sound design, which ties the bow on the first half’s tricky tone of action movie antics with intense yet grounded emotional stakes. Manzoor’s punchy script, as well as Kansara and Arya’s lived-in chemistry, give Ria’s panic over Salim and Lena’s courtship real legs. Her repulsion to Lena’s engagement – she equates Salim’s “enormous wedding boner” to pure evil – is both ridiculous and not unfounded; for Lena to give up on her creative ambitions, as romantic love and lack of confidence make possible, would mean the death of Ria’s dreams for both of them. It’s a compelling push-pull – both sisters are a little right – that’s also quite funny, from the physical comedy hijinks of Ria’s plan to sabotage Salim’s reputation with her sidekicky best friends (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri) to her simple outsized concern. A pitch-perfect shot of Ria’s attempt to incinerate Salim and Lena’s second date with a furious stare from an upstairs window made me laugh out loud.
I could write at length about the first half’s achievement, but then there’s the second, which takes on another well-trafficked lane of late: social horror. A scene at about the midway point makes a huge leap in tone and real-life stakes that the film never sticks. The twist erases the remarkable tonal balance and originality of the build-up (without spoiling too much, the reveal resembles a well-known social thriller). No more enjoyable contrast of Ria’s fantastical scheming with the terrifying mundanity of growing up; it’s less funny and less distinguishable when Ria’s plot to save Lena has actual good-v-evil stakes.
Still, Polite Society is fun to watch throughout – Ria’s punk attitude is endearing, the action winking and lighthearted, and everyone seems to be having a great time. It’s easy to root for her ultimate transformation into her stuntwoman alter-ego, The Fury (which would’ve been a much better film title), less so for the resolution of an unnecessarily ludicrous plot that the film handles like a hot potato, batting it back up into the air and unable to grip firmly. The first half is so energetically surefooted as to establish trust in Manzoor’s instincts and hopes for a second feature. But like The Fury’s would-be signature kick that Ria struggles to nail, Polite Society banks on one big swing it just isn’t able to pull off.