It can be a very tricky balance making a film that wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The risk of being too derivative or comparative is narrowly escaped by the execution of other people’s work through your own voice. The emphasis on your own voice can either get lost in your heroes homage or overshadow the inspired works a filmmaker is trying to capture. “Polite Society” is strange in that is does both equally, leaving it as fun as it is frustrating. There’s enough originality in the material to warrant some strong praise from its debut filmmaker, but also far too much influence to not get completely lost within itself. It is perhaps the most conflicted I’ve felt leaving the theater in a very long time. “Polite Society” is narratively flawed and sports a vast tonal imbalance that holds the film back entirely. But it is also wildly entertaining, packed with whimsy, heart, and sharp dialogue delivered by some powerhouse performances. It will leave you both satisfied and left wanting, and I haven’t fully landed on which percentage takes the majority.
Written and Directed by Nida Manzoor (making her feature film debut) “Polite Society” tells the story of two Pakistani sisters living in London. Ria Khan is the younger, rebellious, mile a minute sister who dreams of becoming a stuntwoman. Her older sister Lena is living at home as well, having dropped out of art school after an identity crisis, leaving her unsure what to do with her life. After the whole family is invited to a matchmaking soiree of sorts, Lena is matched with a young, handsome doctor and is set to marry him shorty after they begin dating. Ria, unable to reckon with the potential loss of her sister to marriage and a strong conviction that “hoity toity” social norms are not for them, she sets out to disrupt the match by any means necessary. While most of her suspicions are built from her wild imagination, she just may actually be saving her sister from something far more sinister than an arranged marriage.
The synopsis alone feels a little disjointed even in its elevator pitch, and its execution is even more exhausting. “Polite Society” is touted as an action comedy-drama, which is already one too many genres to try and tackle in a short hour and forty minute runtime. Not that it can’t be done, just that the film often lets its ambition and inspirations get the best of it and never settles on any one particular theme to invest and engage with. This feels so harsh for a film that is so much fun. Even if the tone and sprawling, tedious narrative get in the way, “Polite Society” isn’t void of enjoyment. Manzoor has one helluva knack for snappy dialogue, and packs “Polite Society” with a ton of laugh out loud moments and quotable lines that are delivered with impeccable timing from its entire cast. Which is in part what makes the film so damn frustrating; it charms you with its wit and cast but doesn’t really know how to make that serve the film’s overall narrative and themes.
Priya Kansara making her feature film debut as Ria is an absolute delight, and regardless of how you feel about the film’s plot or pacing or tone, Kansara turns in an undeniable performance as the lead. Even as “Polite Society” stretches her character as a protagonist to its absolute limits, Kansara is doing some heavy, heavy lifting to charm and win you over anyway. And that’s part of the problem with Ria as the main lead. She is really hard to get behind, especially since everything she does is all unjustified for most of the film. She’s annoying, obstinate, exhausting, and generally everything you hate about teenagers. Which would be fine if the film added coming of age to its long list of genre attempts and her arc ended with her putting away childish things. But no, for most of “Polite Society” she’s a petulant child who, were it not for Kansara doing wonders here would be near impossible to root for. This is further proved by the absolutely insane, out of left field turn in the film’s finale that seems to go above and beyond to validate her erratic, often intolerable behavior. It is a big stretch and not done well, introducing a whole new element to an already overstuffed narrative.
It’s a shame too, because Kansara is just so damn charming and funny that I found myself rooting for her even if I wasn’t actually rooting for Ria. Ritu Arya as Lena is also charming, though she isn’t given nearly as much to do as Kansara. Their sisterhood is strongly solidified and they play off each other very well, selling their bond and the exaggerated reactions from both when that bond is tested and disrupted. “Polite Society” would probably work better were it more balanced between the two perspectives instead of solely focused on Ria’s hyper imagination. Of course, we wouldn’t get the stylized action or “Scott Pilgrim” meta reality flare that makes its way throughout the film and escalates the longer it goes on. Tonally, as fun and silly as it is, this aspect simply doesn’t work for “Polite Society” as a whole. It’s this strange, surface layer that never feels justified but simultaneously wouldn’t be as fun without its inclusion. Can you feel the conflict in me?
Nanzoor show’s a lot of promise as a filmmaker, and for all the faults in “Polite Society” there’s enough groundwork of good ideas to offset the bad ones and show some promise of something better in the future. Focus is the key to success here, because Nanzoor proves she knows how to draw from some of Edgar Wright’s strengths and get the most out of her cast. The whole cast is packed with stellar performances, not just its leads, and it is the main aspect that keeps the film afloat. “Polite Society” plays like it was more fun to make than it actually is to watch, and that’s saying something because it is genuinely fun to watch. It very well may be riddled with narrative deficiencies and tries to tackle too much all at once, but it isn’t without its strengths and those soar with hilarity and joy.
“Polite Society” is a whimsical mess with breakout performances from its leads and overwhelming charm that leaves you with a smile even if it largely disappoints. Though there is a lot to be critical of, it’s still a fun time at the movies and I look forward to more from Nanzoor in her more mature and experienced form, as well many more outlets for Kansara and Arya.
Though somewhat inconclusive, I feel like this review of “Polite Society” has strongly worded verbiage. DIPLOMACY!
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
“Polite Society” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.