Polite Society Movie Review: A Martial Arts Comedy That Lacks a Real Punch

Review: Polite Society delivers on the usual charm that comes with modest action comedy movies, but I felt the tone was too quirky and self-aware for its own good. Some jokes land, some certainly do not. An admirable debut film from director Nida Manzoor, but hopefully there’s a steep upward trajectory from here.

Polite Society Movie from Sundance Film Festival
Polite Society

Polite Society is the debut movie from director and writer Nida Manzoor. This debuted at Sundance earlier this year, where many movies by first time directors go to gain traction before the inevitable straight-to-streaming method that has tainted so many releases these past few years. I look forward to watching a handful of movies like this each year, even if some of them end up being rather forgettable and feeling a relic of their particular calendar year.

But Polite Society feels inherently different because of the cultural stakes that surround it. As it has been well documented, the film industry is in a bit of a renaissance as of late when it pertains to inclusivity – international pictures have never had the push like they have now, and arthouse cinema is flourishing because of this. I was hoping Polite Society would add to this growing sentiment by shining light on Pakistani culture, as well as sulking in British twang that never grows old in my own estimation.

And in a sense, I suppose Polite Society fills those hopes. It’s undeniably campy by default, as every bit of action and tension feels like it’s being ripped straight out of a superhero flick. That may be a turn off for some folks, but I thought it was quite admirable that a movie could fulfill some of the same stunts for a fraction of the budget, especially when the movie intentionally acts like those moments aren’t the pinnacle of the film they are in.

The movie centers on Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), an aspiring martial arts trainee-turned-stunt woman facing a handful of life-changing challenges that could lead her down a path of no return. The adult figures in her life feel that she has little chance of making it in her dream field and that she should focus on a more “serious” career path that could lead to promising opportunities.

And then there’s also the case of her sister Lena getting engaged and possibly moving to Singapore with her fiancé after their wedding, which Ria finds both incredibly suspicious and dumbfounding. Ria goes to great lengths to stop the marriage between the two, and eventually uncovers a plot that could lead to harmful results for her own family members.

For the most part, I like to grade movies coming out of Sundance on an easier curve than those being released by major studios or with lucrative budgets, but I couldn’t help but find Polite Society rather insignificant and light, even by the standards previously laid out. There isn’t much to the story beyond the fragments of ideas I listed during the general synopsis above – it really feels like a B-list action movie that’s lane is now being overrun by superhero movies and spoofs of superhero movies.

Yet maybe I still slightly admire the fact that Polite Society does what mediocre blockbuster entertainment is able to accomplish, but with a slice of the budget. There are action scenes in Polite Society that don’t necessarily blow you away, but they’re admirable given the context that this movie released during a period earlier this year where most indie movies are slow, boiling dramas and frequently stale comedies – there’s an intense style to Polite Society that I can at least spot.

But that style in Polite Society might be the aspect that grew old fast because I always felt like the insistence on action and comedy took away from the reflections of cultural integrity that held the movie together. I always felt most interested when the movie worked through ideas of cultural tradition and expectation versus the 21st century progressive movement working to bring equality regardless of stature. There are heavy themes of identity that linger, but they get pushed to the side for quippy dialogue surrounded by action set pieces that don’t get me too jazzed up.

With that being said, if the goal was to deliver a low-stakes thriller, the job was well executed as Polite Society gets off a handful of memorable sequences and fights, even if they have relatively low stakes and the choreography feels light and tried.

This is to say that there isn’t much new in Polite Society, rather a simmering melting pot of genres well versed at this point. I still like when genres like this get to be attempted (and occasionally amplified) by the inclusion of different races and ethnicities, but I wasn’t sure that it separated itself from the dozens of these films that get released each year.

Technically speaking, there is still some praise to be had as the cinematography is stellar given the indie quality of the movie. Perhaps this is where the movie feels too big for its britches as Polite Society really does recall past action hits like the various Marvel movies that come before it, or even something as obscure as Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

But I still found ample amounts of issues and inconsistencies with it, and a third act that falls apart as it begins – comparing an indie movie to Marvel isn’t always a positive stroke of genius. There’s some good, there’s some bad, and there’s definitely some middling aspects to this new movie from Nida Manzoor.

Rating

Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama

Where to stream Polite Society: Peacock Premium, VOD

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Polite Society Movie Cast and Credits

Polite Society Movie Cast and Director Nida Manzoor

Cast:

Priya Kansara as Ria Khan

Ritu Arya as Lena

Shobu Kapoor as Fatima

Ella Bruccoleri as Alba

Seraphina Beh as Clara

Crew:

Director: Nida Manzoor

Writer: Nida Manzoor

Cinematography: Ashley Connor

Editor: Robbie Morrison

Composer: Tom HoweShez Manzoor

Polite Society movie on Letterboxd

Polite Society movie on IMDb