Polite Society, written and directed by Nida Manzoor, moves like a supersonic jet. That’s one of the best things about the picture. Telling the coming-of-age story of Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), a young woman determined to become a stunt performer, the filmmaker establishes a brash, bold style early and often. Big performances, big camera moves, big editorial choices, big music cues! As the pace quickens, the swings grow larger and larger.
Ria’s best friend is her big sister Lena (Ritu Arya), recently back home in London after dropping out of art school. Ria spends most of her time hanging out with two buds (Ella Bruccoleri and Seraphina Beh, both winning), attempting to stand up to her school bully (Shona Babayemi), and doing her damndest to get the attention of a real-life stunt performer whom she idolizes. Lena helps Ria film social videos of her doing stunts. All of this falls apart when Lena falls in love with Salim, scion of the impressive Shah family. Determined to prevent the marriage (and impending move to Singapore), Ria inadvertently discovers the nefarious motivations behind the pending nuptials.
Manzoor is combining every possible type of genre; the results are decidedly mixed. Performances are the highlight throughout, as is the brisk pace. Kansara proves incredibly charismatic and Arya has an elusive allure that plays well throughout. Nimra Bucha steals moments as the Shah matriarch, chewing arguably too much scenery in spots.
Ultimately, the mid-point twist begins a bridge too far for this viewer. So much of what is grounding and emotional in the first half falls away as the larger context grows more and more extreme. It all leads to a quite-exhausting third act. Fight scene after fight scene is buoyed by a punchline or two, some jokes hitting harder than others. And despite the capable performances and breakneck speed of everything, too much of what’s happening feels repetitive. We know where it’s all going; it feels like it should get there sooner.
In certain ways Polite Society feels aesthetically and editorially forward-looking. Not unlike the celebrated Everything Everywhere All At Once, or the semi-recent hit action comedy Bullet Train, it is propulsive as a style. Shots are spliced in quick succession and the camera seems to be moving frenetically, whether it actually is or not. One could point to YouTube, TikTok, video games, or any number of art forms and platforms. Things move fast now. We process images faster than ever before. And these motion pictures seem to capture that continuous evolution.
So it is here that I must say movies like Polite Society make me feel old. They often exhaust me. And while I appreciate the Jane Austen sensibilities of the sister’s relationship and the overall plot of betrothal, the “final boss battle” energy overtakes everything else. By the time there is catharsis I’ve lost the will to engage. If this is a fault of myself, I accept that.
Polite Society screened at Sundance 2023 and will be released on April 28 by Focus Features.