Movie Review (Sundance 2023): ‘Polite Society’ Unleashes Real Comic Fun
Director: Nida Manzoor
Writer: Nida Manzoor
Stars: Ulli Ackermann, Pritom Ahmed, and Sophie Aislin
Synopsis: Ria Khan believes that she must save her older sister Lena from her impending marriage. After enlisting her friends’ help, she attempts to pull off the most ambitious of all wedding heists, in the name of independence and sisterhood.
Cinephiles add films to their watchlists for several different reasons. Maybe it’s from their favorite director, writer, or actor. Perhaps it belongs to a beloved (sub)genre. Sometimes it’s literally just because it’s part of some cinematic universe or another type of franchise. Nowadays, moviegoers are less likely to go to the theater or click play exclusively due to how much the story got their attention. One of the most extraordinary things about covering Sundance is that the vast majority of films are completely unknown. No marketing campaign or overwhelming hype surrounding them whatsoever. I wanted to watch Polite Society because its premise had everything to leave me with an ear-to-ear smile…
And it did. Nida Manzoor delivers a movie that looks straight out of a true comic book. Emphasis on the “true” adjective there. When it comes to film adaptations, adjustments are made to the narrative, characters, costumes, and overall visuals due to how extremely colorful and children-oriented this type of source material usually is. Since studios think a more set-in-our-world kind of tale is more broadly accessible, everything gets a more “realistic” look. Polite Society barely does any of those expected modifications, but don’t let my words mislead you: it is an original story.
It’s relatively easy to see similarities with the series Ms. Marvel. Not only the Pakistani culture is also proudly (re)presented on-screen – costumes, music, traditions, family heritage, and more – but the whole movie is packed with light humor, fun action scenes, and a pretty cool wedding ceremony that, of course, doesn’t quite go as planned. Polite Society embraces the intentional over-the-topness of it all, which might be a major issue for some viewers. Tonal balance is a very tricky filmmaking aspect to get right; but personally, I highly enjoyed Manzoor’s creativity and boldness in going all-in.
From the witty song choices to the hilariously epic use of slow-motion, without forgetting the stylized title cards, Polite Society is arguably the most distinctive film of the festival, whether viewers end up loving it or not. The cast understands the mission, contributing to the incredibly energetic atmosphere with amusing performances. Priya Kansara works perfectly as the relatable protagonist, Ria Khan, a young woman who dreams of becoming a stuntwoman. When her very close sister – beautifully interpreted by Ritu Arya – changes plans and moves on from her own dreams, Ria doesn’t take it well.
Hence, in the middle of so much chaos, Polite Society explores Ria’s mixed feelings – jealousy, fear of failure, will to protect – within the themes of sisterhood, self-belief, and life balance. Part of me wishes that these topics would have been more profoundly developed, but there’s nothing wrong with focusing on an entertaining, action-driven flick. Obviously, keeping in mind the main character’s dream job, the stunts are pretty great. Once again, I wish there was more choreography and long takes involved – a lot of throwing against and through things – but it’s undoubtedly fun to watch.
The generic screenplay doesn’t hold any major surprises, which basically makes the viewer’s enjoyment rely exclusively on the crazy feel and look of Polite Society. If the action doesn’t really impress you or if the purposefully exaggerated tone is too much to handle, then this may not be for you. But if Manzoor’s maximalist style conquers your full attention, then you’ll hardly leave unsatisfied. Final remark to Nimra Bucha’s phenomenal performance – yet another Ms. Marvel similarity.