Fun comedy ‘Polite Society’ marries matchmaking and martial arts

Movie about two British-Pakistani sisters is propelled by an infectious and genuine punk-rock energy.

SHARE Fun comedy ‘Polite Society’ marries matchmaking and martial arts

Priya Kansara (left) and Ritu Arya play sisters at odds with their family’s expectations in “Polite Society.”

Focus Features

Coming-of-age comedies about young protagonists with esoteric dreams are not exactly a rarity. What is less common, though, are films as spirited and charming as Nida Manzoor’s “Polite Society,” a roundhouse kick of a movie about two British-Pakistani sisters that marries Jane Austen with kung-fu flair.

“Polite Society,” the feature film debut of writer-director Manzoor, creator of the British sitcom “We Are Lady Parts,” is a fun and increasingly preposterous comedy. But it’s propelled by an infectious and genuine punk-rock energy. Make no mistake about it, the sisters of “Polite Society” are here to take down Pakistani tradition, the patriarchy and anything else you got.

Manzoor’s film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where a lot of quirky coming-of-age comedies tend to emerge. And while there isn’t much inherently groundbreaking in “Polite Society,” Manzoor’s zippy script and direction, plus terrific performances from newcomer Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, give a familiar teen-comedy form some spry new moves.

‘Polite Society’


Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Nida Manzoor. Rated PG-13 (for strong language, violence, sexual material, and some partial nudity). Running time: 103 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

Ria Khan (Kansara) and Lena (Arya) are London sisters with ambitions that don’t jibe with their mostly sweet and not-all-that-demanding parents (Shobu Kapoor, Jeff Mirza). Ria dreams of being a stuntwoman. Lena is a budding artist. But having recently dropped out of art school, Lena is losing self-confidence. Ria’s, however, is sky high — sometimes comically so. When she faces off with a library monitor (Shona Babayemi) at school, the scene turns into an amplified fight scene with all the aplomb of a Sergio Leone showdown. But as Lena flies through the air for the knockout kick, she falls short by a foot or two.

Like most comedies, “Polite Society” is best in its first half. Manzoor juxtaposes Ria and Lena’s brazen individualism against the expectations they’re saddled with growing up. One scene is crosscut between their mother, with other mothers at tea, talking warmly about her daughters’ maturity while back home, Ria and Lena dance wildly. But their biggest threat isn’t a domineering parent or a teacher who tells Ria to be a doctor, instead. It’s that Lena’s commitment to their sisterly rebellion is quaking.

Lena is set up with Salim (Akshay Khanna) by her mother and Salim’s wealthy, strong-arming mother (Nimra Bucha, terrifically diabolical) with the idea of an arranged marriage. Horrifying as this prospect is to Ria, even worse is that Lena actually falls for him. With her best friends (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri), Ria endeavors to spy on Salim to find some dirt on him. Undercover at his gym, Ria communicates through a walkie-talkie: “The eagle is on the treadmill.”

“Polite Society” does spiral as it goes along, taking on a too-out-there science-fiction plot. But throughout, the joy of the film is how Manzoor celebrates Ria and Lena’s nonconformist spunk while playfully mocking their grandiose efforts to bend the world with their will. After raucously rallying her friends to foil the marriage, Ria lays out an unexpectedly modest phase one of diplomacy. “So, like, chatting?” one friends replies. “Yeah, like verbiage,” she answers. “Strongly worded verbiage.” Often, the editing (by Robbie Morrison) is just as funny. The timing couldn’t be more perfect between Lena pronouncing that she and her sister wouldn’t be caught dead at a “hoity-toity” soiree and the cut to them at the ball.

Manzoor’s film unfolds in chapters, each announced with elaborate yellow titles. The joke is how much Ria and Lena aren’t your typical kung-fu heroes, how much their teen dramas don’t equate to thrilling martial-arts clashes. But why “Polite Society” is so winning is because they really are engaged in a battle of life and death. Refusing who you’re supposed to be isn’t always polite business. Sometimes, it takes a karate chop.

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