The Khan sisters aren’t just big dreamers; they’re big doers. Well, sort of. The British-Pakistani siblings — including oldest sister Lena (Ritu Arya) and baby sib Ria (breakout star Priya Kansara) — have always strived to carve their own path in the world, but as Lena’s dreams of being an artist start to wane, Ria’s aspirations to become a world-class stunt performer take on a much more important cast. Mostly, she’s gotta turn her love of ass-kicking into something that can do nothing less than save her entire world.
For her first feature film, “We Are Lady Parts” creator Nida Manzoor weaves a hyper-creative coming-of-age tale about (pause to take a big breath): fighting the patriarchy, gut-punching feminine expectations, “The Matrix,” Islam, martial arts, family dynamics, high school dynamics, fresh-pressed juice, romance, friendship, forced leg waxing, possibly evil hybrid alien babies, diplomacy, computer hacking, and one seriously cool convertible. At its heart, Manzoor’s stuffed-to-bursting “Polite Society” asks one haunting question: What happens when your best friend opts to take her own life path?
For Ria, that particular pickle consumes every part of her life, because once Lena stops dreaming and doing what she loves best, the impact on Ria is profound (what if, she can’t help but wonder, Lena’s crisis means that the youngest Khan sister is destined to flame out, too?). Ria’s ambitions have always consumed her, but they’ve left plenty of room for classic teenage hang-ups, like a propensity for fantasy and fatalism. Suddenly hit with a problem she’s determined to solve, Ria has to pull together everything that makes her — the good and the bad — to “save” her sister from going down a road Ria simply can’t fathom.
That road? Marriage. (Screams.)
When Manzoor’s film opens, Lena is at loose ends, even if Ria can’t quite see that. After recently leaving art school, Lena spends her days hacking away (often literally so) at her paintings, wandering the streets around the cozy Khan home, and eating Peking duck with her bare hands. Things are not going well! Ria is similarly unmoored, even if she doesn’t realize it, spending her free time firing off emails to her idol (who never answers), performing complicated handshakes with her best pals (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, both delightful), and defending her sister to anyone and everyone (especially their sweet but baffled parents, played by Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza).
Still, Ria’s imagination is strong, and Manzoor deftly blends what’s real (Ria tiffing with a fellow schoolmate) with the fantastical (that tiff becomes an eye-popping spectacle of body slams and spin kicks that would make the Wachowskis jealous). Soon enough, though, we all have to wonder: What’s actually real here?
When the Khans head off to a swanky Eid soiree (the film is divided into chapters, including one titled, yes, “Eid Soiree”), Ria is shocked to find her offbeat, artistic sister making doe eyes at the handsome doctor son (Aksha Khanna) of one of her mom’s snobby pals (Nimra Bucha). Things escalate, and soon Lena and Salim are, gasp, engaged? For Ria, nothing could be worse than her sister playing into the very feminine expectations they’ve always battled. But perhaps Ria’s seemingly insane concerns — like that Salim and his mom are up to something genuinely nefarious and not just adhering to traditional desires and plans — have roots in the real world. Or do they?
Manzoor, who also wrote the film’s script, takes this concept to wild, riotous ends. An action comedy that throws everything from “Sixteen Candles” and “The Matrix” to “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” into a blender and spins them up for totally original ends, “Polite Society” is a nutty joy from start to finish. The real magic, however? It’s also beholden to the primal affection between siblings, the love between two people who know each other better than anyone and then realize that even that love has limits.
Hell, maybe it doesn’t! Because while Ria’s belief that something is truly wrong with Lena and Salim’s love affair alienates her from just about everyone, including those sweet parents and dedicated BFFs, she simply can’t give up on it — or her sisterly bond. Big laughs, zippy editing, and incredible fight sequences recommend the film, but it’s the profound emotion at its heart that makes it truly special.
That, of course, and a pair of female leads bent on dreaming, doing, and kicking ass — together. As inspirational as it is entertaining, “Polite Society” is a strong debut from Manzoor and a rallying cry for a whole swath of brand-new stars to champion. Polite? Rarely. Punchy? Truly, and more.
“Polite Society” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on April 28, 2023.
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