Polite Society Review: An Aspiring Stuntwoman Tries To Sabotage Her Sister's Wedding In This Crowd-Pleasing Comedy [Sundance]

London teen Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) desperately wants to be a stuntwoman. Her family and teachers don't take her seriously — they'd rather her follow the expected path of becoming a doctor — but she's devoted: She makes martial arts videos in her backyard and writes (unanswered) emails to her idol, a world-famous stuntwoman named Eunice, asking for advice. Ria is convinced two things are destined to happen: she will achieve her goal, and her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) will become an artist. But Lena has dropped out of art school, which concerns their mother's overbearing circle of aunties, led by the ultra-wealthy Raheela Shah (Nimra Bucha).

When the Shahs invite the Khans to a fancy soiree at their mansion to celebrate Eid, Ria quickly realizes the true reason for the invitation: Raheela's handsome son, Salim (Akshay Khanna), is an eligible bachelor on the hunt for a wife. Ria is disgusted, but Lena hits it off with him, leading to a relationship that sends Ria spiraling. Naturally, she'll miss her sister if she's married off and whisked away to another part of the world — who will help her make her martial arts videos? But her worry runs far deeper than that: If Lena doesn't become an artist and instead settles for being a trophy wife, what does that say about Ria's chances to live out her own dreams? Ria thinks something's off about the Shah family, but are her conspiratorial concerns a manifestation of her fear of change, or is she actually onto something? Naturally, she enlists her two loyal best friends (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who both absolutely crush it) to break up the impending wedding and "save" Lena from a life Ria is certain her sister doesn't really want.

Heightened action in service of comedy

Nina Manzoor, the creator of the acclaimed series "We Are Lady Parts," wrote the screenplay and makes her feature directorial debut here, bringing a terrific sense of humor to the proceedings while infusing it with action movie sensibilities. Ria constantly finds herself in fight scenes, which Manzoor treats as major showdowns, slapping bright yellow text on the screen ("Khan vs. Kouvacs") and dropping in sound effects of eagles screeching as she pushes the camera toward the combatants as if they're in a Leone western. She shoots these brawls in a heightened style, incorporating wire work and larger-than-life choreography: In a battle with her bully at school, Ria leaps off columns in the library to transition into a lengthy flying kick, only to be grabbed in mid-air and flung through a glass display case. Later, after Ria angers Lena by trying to interfere with her sister's relationship, Lena smashes her face into a framed photo of the two of them and kicks her straight through a door in their house.

Manzoor never lingers on the aftermath of these melees, so it seems extremely unlikely that they're happening exactly as shown. Instead, they're filtered through Ria's perspective, and through that distinctly teenaged sense of everything having life-or-death stakes. Ria is regularly bruised and bloodied, but she's tenacious, like an '80s action hero who always manages to get up after being knocked down, and her tenacity ingratiates her to the audience. All the while, Kansara is game for everything, bringing an impressive physicality and an even more impressive sense of comedic timing to her performance.

One of the most fun movies of 2023 (so far)

If I haven't underlined how funny "Polite Society" is, it's because most of the jokes are effective in the moment but not always particularly memorable. The prevailing trait of the film is a sense of fun, even when Ria's plans go awry and she finds herself in her darkest moment. As Salim's overbearing mother, Bucha brings a sense of menace that, in Ria's view, almost rivals that of a James Bond villain; she's all cackling laughs and evil speeches, and the veteran actress totally nails the tone of her role. But as stylized as things get, the movie is always tethered to real emotions. Everyone can relate to being scared of change, and Manzoor threads the needle of making the film amplified enough to make it feel unique but grounded enough that we never lose sight of what these characters want and how they're feeling.

Bursting with playful energy, set to a killer soundtrack, and dripping with personality, "Polite Society" is a winning, ultra-charming tale of sisterly love.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10