On paper, Polite Society is exactly the kind of film I come to Sundance for. The feature debut of We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor take a tired, overused festival-favorite genre, that of the Austen-era romance, and gives it a high-flying, surreal twist told from the perspective of a British-Pakistani teen. But for all of the genuinely fun, original aspects the film has to offer, the parts never gel into a satisfying whole.
Don’t get me wrong, Manzoor knows what she wants to accomplish with Polite Society. And what she wants to accomplish is EVERY DAMN THING!!! That’s the biggest problem in a nutshell; there’s so much happening that Manzoor completely misfires on the tone. This is a movie that tackles Pakistani family expectations, especially of daughters; defeating the patriarchy; bullying; human cloning; kung fu; and sisterly connection. It’s…well, a lot. And there’s still more. It’s also the story of a girl who just wants to meet her idol and achieve her dream of becoming a stuntwoman.
The film centers on the Khan sisters; imaginative Ria (Priya Kansara) and older sis Lena (Ritu Arya). Both are creative souls, which is why they have such a close-knit bond. Ria is a martial artist and aspiring stuntwoman who kicks ass for the followers of her Youtube channel. Lena is an artist…well, she WAS an artist, but is in a funk after dropping out of art school. That decision has made her parents very happy, who hope she’ll follow a more traditional path. They hope that for both of their daughters, actually. Get a job, get married. Or maybe just the latter.
But what happens when Lena actually gives in, or as Ria thinks, gives up hope? Lena quits art, starts dressing differently, and begins dating the handsome, seemingly-perfect doctor son to one of her mother’s devious friends. If Lena can be convinced to give up everything and, *gasp*, get married, what hope does Ria have at being who she wants to be?
Manzoor deftly navigates the most grounded aspects of Ria’s life; fighting to gain some semblance of independence, shenanigans with her friends, dealing with bullies at school, and worrying over her sister. And these scenes are genuinely charming, often bounding into the fantastical. A fight between Ria and her nemesis explodes into wu xia-inspired jumpkicks (Ria has a deadly Van Damme-esque jumpkick she’s dying to hit one day) and Matrix-like escapes.
The mix of tones is all wrong, though. Manzoor takes Polite Society to some truly wild places, and the further it gets from reality the less believable Ria’s angst over her sister. By the time the idea of alien hybrid babies is introduced, and we are expected to take it seriously, the film has gone too far off the rails. It doesn’t help that some of the violence goes way too far for the easy resolutions that Manzoor offers. The grounding principle of the film is Ria’s love for her sister. That should always be there for the audience to hold on to when Manzoor plays up the bombastic elements, we lose track of Ria’s motivations as her mission to destroy Lena’s wedding gets more implausible.
Polite Society is an overstuffed, unfocused film that still packs a punch, has a lot of heart, and buzzes with female energy. It’s like a dozen films all at once fighting for attention, which proves to be more of a curse than a blessing.
Focus Features will release Polite Society into theaters on April 28th.