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Focus Features, 2023
📷 : Pixabay
Movies and TV shows that make you laugh, or involve urgency, like chase scenes or other physical activity
Youthful, lighthearted, and fun movies and TV shows
“The gods whispered to the warrior, 'You will not withstand the fury.' The warrior whispers back, 'I am the fury!'”
Between John Wick, Fast and Furious and the slew of comic-book movies in theaters, there is no shortage of big-budget action-packed cinema hitting the big screen. Nonetheless, these franchises all take themselves very seriously. Yes, they have humor and heart, but their characters are frequently indestructible despite their many brushes with death. They fight off villain after villain, sometimes without breaking a sweat, and reel off fake deep proverbs with a straight face. In fact, it’s been suggested that the goal of blockbusters is to create meme-worthy moments to increase their popularity. While it works, a nice change of pace would be a goofy action-comedy where the main character looks foolish and over their head at times. Director Nida Manzoor and her new action-comedy Polite Society provide this refresher.
Polite Society unfolds from the perspective of Ria (Priya Kansara, Bridgerton), a British-Pakistani high school student in London practicing martial arts and aspiring to become a professional stuntwoman. She finds inspiration in not only her idol, but also her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya, The Umbrella Academy), an aspiring artist who has dropped out of school and moved back home. While they are a few years apart, Lena and Ria remain very close, with Ria helping Lena shoot videos of her training in martial arts and reciting mantras. One day, Lena, Ria and their parents attend the fancy party of a young doctor, Salim (Akshay Khanna, Grace), whose mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha, Churails), is trying to marry him off. He is smitten with Lena, takes her on a date, and seduces her. Feeling as though she’s losing her sister to someone who will strip her of her passion for art, Ria sets out with her school friends to sabotage Lena’s promising new relationship, discovering Raheela’s true motives in the process.
Polite Society’s calling card is the heavily stylized action and editing. At times, it feels reminiscent of the 1960s Adam West Batman series, the Kill Bill movies or an Edgar Wright film. Between the voiceover narration, frequent quipping, and bombastic sound effects accompanying fight scenes, the film engages the audience through its absurdity. Manzoor makes it intentionally difficult to determine if the action depicted is exactly how scenes are playing out or part of Ria’s imagination. Considering her goal to be a career stuntwoman, this stylistic choice complements the story and protagonist well. If your main character is a dreamer, you may as well place the audience directly in her dreamlike world. However, Ria comes back down to earth frequently, such as when she cannot land a spinning kick on her school bully and comically falls to the ground in a heap.
A clear example of such a surreal moment in the film is when Lena finds out that Ria has been tailing her boyfriend to find dirt on him. Lena enters Ria’s room and engages her in a violent fistfight, damaging walls, mirrors and doors all through the upstairs level of the house. Their parents, down in the kitchen, hear the noise and appear nonplussed, as though they are used to it. While they are both bloody and bruised, they eventually stop and have a verbal argument before parting ways. Similar to prior scenes, the violence is a bit over-the-top for what you’d expect from sisters with a healthy relationship. They go beyond tussling and bloody each other up. This type of fight choreography is meant to portray the existence Ria will likely have if she is successful with her career goals. It also heavily contrasts the notion that Pakistani women be meek, docile or subservient.
A major theme of Polite Society is keeping one’s dreams alive. While Ria is young, rebellious and full of optimism, Lena feels beaten down by the beginning of her adulthood, experiencing self-doubt for the first time. Part of why she is so charmed by Salim is his recognition of her uncertainty, despite his own clear-cut career path. He comforts her with the sentiment that it is okay to be unsure of where you are headed, understanding her in a way that her sister cannot.
Meanwhile, Ria and Lena’s camaraderie is clearly a source of motivation for Ria. Though her school friends are fiercely loyal, she craves Lena’s support in more ways than one. Not only does she need encouragement, but she also needs Lena to continue on with her own dream. Such a difference in perspective can occur between friends or siblings in different phases of life, where the younger of the two still thinks idealistically while the older becomes more practical.
A noticeable element of the film is Ria’s strengths and weaknesses. Outside of meddling in her sister’s relationship, her fighting skills fail her in many confrontations; basically, every single one. She takes quite a few lumps in the movie, all in humorous fashion to keep a light-hearted tone. Her failures contrast sharply with many other movies where the main character has martial arts training. Instead of wiping the floor with everyone she faces off with, Ria struggles to execute all of the moves she has learned. Her inability to win fights or execute stunts makes the movie that much more endearing, as there is a clear message about perseverance in all of her disappointments. Despite her embarrassing and painful losses, she keeps getting back up and trying again. Similarly, she continues writing to her idol Eunice Huthart, a famous stuntwoman, despite months and months of having never heard back. Her persistence makes her a charming character, even if she is occasionally irritating to those around her.
Polite Society tickles the funny bone throughout while still offering poignant moments and quirky action sequences. While having a different storyline, Manzoor’s indie flick feels strikingly similar to the 2010 action-comedy Kick-Ass. The latter is far more violent, but both lean heavily on style, sound editing and the humorous slapstick failings of their main characters.