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Review: Girl power and freaky evil collide to make ‘Polite Society’ a rowdy good time

Three young women at an outdoor market
Seraphina Beh, from left, Priya Kansara and Ella Bruccoleri in the movie “Polite Society.”
(Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features)
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It’s a sisterhood of the traveling fists and feet in Nida Manzoor’s rowdy and uplifting action-comedy “Polite Society,” a movie with a lot of fight in it, literally and, in advocating riotously for centering more young women in a genre typically dominated by men, figuratively.

British writer-director Manzoor is fast proving to be a singular entertainer behind the camera, having created one of the more enjoyable series in recent memory with her winning Muslim-punk-girls comedy “We Are Lady Parts” (available on Peacock) and now with “Polite,” slamming together a tangy spice mix of girl power, family drama and freaky evil into one colorfully funny good time.

If the job of stuntwoman didn’t exist, it’d have to be invented for high-spirited and combative teen Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), passionate about her martial arts training, constantly writing fan missives to the female stunt coordinator she idolizes (Eunice Huthart, a U.K. trailblazer for stuntwomen and Angelina Jolie’s frequent go-to double) and obsessed with nailing a difficult reverse spin kick move for her social media “Khan-fu” videos. With her school besties Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) by her side, anything is possible, friendship is a superpower, and the patriarchy is on notice.

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To commemorate next year’s 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, we’re spending 12 months looking at the lives of 7 members of this year’s class.

Aug. 9, 2023

Ria’s biggest champion is her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), a frustrated art school dropout who loves the grit, vim and goofiness in her clear-eyed sibling. Ria may get into gnarly showdowns with the school bully (Shona Babayemi) and come up short, but she knows her life goal — movie ass-kicking. Lena, however, when not caught up in the swirl of her younger sister’s energy, is losing the thread of her own ambition, no matter how many times Ria tells her she’s a great artist.

Action movie fight scene
Priya Kansara in the movie “Polite Society.”
(Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features)

It’s the betrayal of all betrayals, then, when in the wake of a swanky Eid party thrown by wealthy local matriarch Raheela (a deliciously imperious Nimra Bucha), Lena becomes engaged to Raheela’s dreamboat geneticist son, Salim (Akshay Khanna). To Ria, horrified by her goth-edged sister suddenly wearing cardigans and making goo-goo eyes, this is nothing less than a hijacking engineered by Bond-like villains, and the only thing to do is plan a “Mission: Impossible”-style-meets-Bollywood-panache escape operation at the elaborate wedding to save her sister.

Giving off throwback appeal and new-energy sparks, “Polite Society” is the kind of reality-tinged comic adventure that, with Kansara’s delightful leading-the-charge performance, puts you in Ria’s headspace of overactive adolescent righteousness so easily that it hasn’t been this much fun rooting for someone — which includes laughing at their brashness and even cringing at their mistakes — in a long, long while. (I blame the lack of charmingly scrappy good-versus-bad narratives from our movie diet on the tiresome dominance of the superhero-industrial complex. May Manzoor never leave her door-crashing originality behind to direct one.)

“Polite Society” doesn’t need the slickest fight choreography or the most innovative plot devices or the zingiest lines to make its combo platter work, either. Manzoor, an instinctive stylist, always finds an honest vibe to win you over, whether it’s sisterly camaraderie (or annoyance), youthful awkwardness or you’re-going-down spunk, which allows the abundant personality in her wonderful cast to hit all the necessary top notes. And in Arya’s case as Lena, that gives room for a grounded portrayal of uncertainty to belong in an often pleasurably bonkers-leaning scenario.

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On the crafts side, Ashley Connor’s cinematography nicely merges London gray with South Asian pop (especially in costumer PC Williams’ nuptials wear) for a cheeky palette befitting a teenager’s battle against those who would deny any woman her agency. And Manzoor’s music cues (from Karen O to the Bombay Royale) add plenty of raucous punch to a badass party, one in which our heroine sees life as an action film, while lucky moviegoers get an action film full of life.

'Polite Society'

Rated: PG-13, for strong language, violence, sexual material and some partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Starts April 28 in general release

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