Polite Society: Sundance 2023 film review

Runtime: 103 minutes

Director/Writer: Nida Manzoor

Actors: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Shobu Kapoor, Nimra Bucha, Ella Bruccoleri, Seraphina Beh, Sally Ann, Akshay Khanna

by Sarah Manvel

“Polite Society” is a wild thrill ride about a moody fifteen-year-old girl and her attempts to stop her sister’s wedding. It’s a fight movie in which all the fighters are women, a British movie with only one white main character in it, and a Muslim movie in which religion is both an essential plot point and also irrelevant. It is, in every way, and on every level, a triumph, but the best thing about “Polite Society” is that is is fun. It doesn’t overlook some fairly serious issues of sexism, women’s bodies, and physical control, but it does all that with a sense of glee that’s rarer than diamonds and more valuable than 22-carat gold. “Polite Society” is a treat from start to finish. 

Ria (an outstanding Priya Kansara) goes to an all-girls school in west London with her best friends, rubber-faced Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and moody Clara (Seraphina Beh). She wants to be a stuntwoman when she grows up, to the disappointment of her practical mother Fatima (an excellent Shobu Kapoor). Her older sister Lena (a beautiful and ferocious Ritu Arya) has dropped out of art school and moved back home, which Ria thinks is great; it means she has a full-time cinematographer for her online martial arts channel. Lena’s depression and obvious misery are invisible to an obnoxious little sister literally dragging her out of bed. At an Eid soirée thrown by Raheela (a delightfully villainous Nimra Bucha) in her gorgeous, giant mansion, Lena meets Raheela’s perfect son Salim (Akshay Khanna). A romance begins, to the parents’ delight and Ria’s disgust – the repeated shots of Ria staring in horror out her bedroom window as Lena and Salim snog in the street are very funny, and realistic. But when the engagement is announced, Ria is shocked beyond words. The wedding must be stopped, at all costs.

Alba and Clara are supportive friends. When Ria can’t be stopped from challenging the awful Edith (Sally Ann) to a fight in the school library, it’s Alba who leads the chants, and Clara who picks Ria up after she gets her arse handed to her despite all her practice. Ashley Connor’s cinematography and Robbie Morrison’s editing keep the fights clean and simple, with enough menace in them to have a real kick while still being age-appropriate. Later Clara and Alba are even willing to don disguises and infiltrate a gym changing room to steal Salim’s laptop for blackmail purposes. But eventually even they are disturbed by how upset Ria is about the upcoming wedding. Fine, Ria says. She’ll stop it herself.

But she underestimated Raheela. Ms Kansara’s heedless enthusiasm is a hurricane of activity, and she carries the movie with ease, but Ms Bucha’s calm glamour is an easy match for Ria’s untutored enthusiasm. Besides, Raheela is friends with her mum. Ria can’t really say no. After a waxing sequence to beat the one in “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin,” there’s a plot twist that’s both so surprising and so obvious it’s an actual delight. As Ria’s interference becomes ever more important, the stakes kicks into a gear unusual for a first movie, but writer-director Nida Manzoor knows exactly what she is doing (and the Sundance Film Festival must have been delighted to offer their support). That is to say, “Polite Society” tells a story about a non-white British family without pandering to the white gaze. In the context of the British media landscape, this is as revolutionary as travelling to the moon, and almost as impossible. The backlash to Ms Manzoor’s “We Are Lady Parts,” a TV show about a punk band whose members are all Muslim women, was so comprehensive it nearly swallowed the show. But all that show did was accept the characters for who they are, and expect the audience to do the same. “Polite Society” does the same, which is so radical it’s kind of embarrassing, that the bar is so low. Not even Gurinder Chadha, whose long career about the Indian diaspora in the UK has so included white people that she discovered Keira Knightley, has ever quite managed that. 

If all “Polite Society” achieved was that, it would be worth seeing, but that would also do this movie an injustice. It’s a fight movie about a teenage girl dealing with issues of free will, female sexuality and how women support each other. It’s incredibly funny, but the threat to Lena’s future is genuine, and the stakes are palpable, while never forgetting that the main character is a kid. Ria cycles herself to school and can somehow buy herself a grappling hook, but she’s a kid nonetheless, and even the evillest adults around are fully aware, and respectful of, her inherent limitations. 

There’s probably a few too many bare backsides and a little too much mild swearing to make this suitable for pre-teens, but anyone over fourteen should have a terrific time.


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