Facing normal teenage problems with grace and acceptance is just unrealistic. Jumping headfirst into the deep end of conspiracy, ridiculous plotting and over-the-top genre-hopping pastiche is a far more relatable way to deal with growing pains. The world of musicals belts this angst out. Punk kicks that world’s ass, to similar ends. But when the enthusiastic force behind Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts (a show well-versed in both), writer/director Nida Manzoor, faces this moody madness on the big screen, she retaliates with Polite Society, a silly, energetic headrush of action-comedy.
Playing in the stylish, piss-taking space of Gurinder Chadha and Edgar Wright, Manzoor’s feature debut attacks adolescent fears—failing to achieve your dreams, settling for less, fading from loved ones—with spin-kicks, fake mustaches and evil plots so absurdly sinister that even the most jaded, monosyllabic teens will have to crack a smile. The exploits of Ria (Priya Kansara) and her entourage of high school dorks (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, sidekicks who get all the punchlines and weaponize them accordingly) are simply ridiculous, and in this ridiculousness, they transcend the kung-fu movie parodies and the Bond-villain schemes filling Polite Society to inhabit the Teenage Sublime.
Here, the farce finds a greater truth. Period jokes smash headlong into passing-period profanity. Bullies don’t just give you a swirly, they pick you up and smash you into the trophy case like you’re Neo. Failures are epic, and every new development in life hits like a car crash. Everything is pitched at a level intense enough to feel like you’re going through puberty all over again: The colors pop, the titles crash onto the screen, the needledrops thrum you along.
Kansara’s do-it-all performance leads us at a similar level, charmingly bug-eyed and stubborn. Ria looks up to her big sis, Lena (Ritu Arya), whose art school passions and shag haircut scream “cool role model.” Even when she drops out, that’s something to admire—she’s a badass, living by her own rules. Her path gives Ria the support she needs to pursue her dreams of being a stuntwoman, even more than Lena’s literal help filming her aspirational fight videos. She sees someone go against the grain, not just that of her more traditional parents, but of the larger cultural traditions still weighing down on her. It’s not that there are specific expectations on her, per se, but that it’s a lot cooler to be the little sister to someone defying all expectations.
So when Lena meets a guy, a handsome rich guy at that, it sinks Ria. In the real world, she’d feel like the world is ending. In Polite Society...the world might actually be ending. That’s where Manzoor finds her biggest success: Reflecting how heightened and out-of-control everything feels when you’re young, translating it to genre tropes and sitcom sidequests. She’s gotta stomp their relationship into the dust, one outsized mission at a time. It’s exceptionally cute, and sharp enough that even the more predictable gags do some damage.
Gags like Lena’s guy, Salim (Akshay Khanna), being more than just tolerable. He’s a caricature of a Good Guy. He says all the right things, he’s got a great beard, he’s a doctor who saves babies. Of course he’s sweeping Lena off her feet, and of course Ria hates his filthy guts. Khanna is hilarious, but so is everyone in the cast. Manzoor gets everyone exactly where they need to be. Arya alternates between moon-eyed swooning and indignance, while Kansara displays an incredible range and impeccable comic timing; both whip out some action movie moves that are all the more satisfying considering the ass-beatings are delivered in gorgeous, eye-popping anarkalis. Atop it all is Nimra Bucha, who steals the show as Salim’s sinister and soapy mother, chewing scenery like she’s got Tom Cruise tied up and Simon Pegg is freaking out over the headset. Her broad smile and tilted head pinpoint our “fuck you” sensors and trigger a red alert—she’s camp, she’s iconic, she’s perfect.
While the energy rarely lets up and the cast is practically vibrating with how much fun they’re having, Polite Society can still run into the limitations of its own designs. While it wants to flood us with style, the brash title designs and slo-mo wuxia-like fighting eventually gets a little repetitive. The film clearly had its visual jokes in mind (caterers and masseuses dropping everything for some martial arts action cracks me up every time), but was maybe boxed in a bit by what it would take to diversify them. That antithetical restraint feels all the more deflating because of the potential at hand: Brief moments of parkour, enjoyably mundane torture and bedroom brawls are held back from how bonkers they truly want to be; a mid-movie dance sequence is cut to pieces, in service both to an easier production and a misprioritized sense of plot. Live by the teenage extravagance, die by the teenage extravagance—the worst parts of the film are when we can see all the ways in which it wanted to go even bigger, where its aesthetic can seem unflatteringly underdeveloped.
But like so many first films, especially quirky films with oddball ways of attacking the universal predicament of growing up, Polite Society’s voice and intention outweigh the material constraints keeping things small. It’s a hell of a calling card, one with a pithy kiss-off and lots of glitter. Manzoor and her cast make the most of their silliness, and even if Polite Society can underwhelm at times, leaving us wanting the filmmaker to get more money, more freedom and more time to explore the peaks of her wild vision is a great problem to have.
Director: Nida Manzoor
Writer: Nida Manzoor
Starring: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, Akshay Khanna, Seraphina Beh, Ella Bruccoleri
Release Date: January 20, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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