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Sundance 2023: 'Polite Society' Is Too Restrained to Land a Punch

Sundance Institute/Parisa Taghizadeh

With tons of fun and vibrant kinetic energy, Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society radiates with crowd pleasing sensibilities and added cultural nuance. As fun as the film might be, though, it doesn’t escape the bounds of convention and skirts over details in what is often a nonsensical narrative. There are enough enjoyable moments to save the film from its own frustrating elements, but it’s certainly far from perfect.

Set within London, Ria (Priya Kansara) is a young aspiring stunt performer with high hopes and a determined mind. Her sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), is an art school dropout who lives waywardly as the world around her continues to move on — that is, until she meets a wealthy scientist, Salim (Akshay Khanna), who quickly sweeps her off her feet and proposes marriage. Ria instinctively has reservations about Salim and his overbearing mother (Nimra Bucha) and quickly devises a plan to rescue her sister from, what she perceives, as a dangerous union.

Polite Society is a good effort in narrative storytelling that’s bathed in cultural specificity. There’s plenty of material dissecting the complexities of marriage within Indian culture, which is centred around the endearing relationship between Ria and Lena. The bond between sisters is what ultimately glues the film together, creating a sense of universality that is sure to have wide appeal among general audiences. Manzoon’s approach to dramatization is thoughtful and never feels self-serving. Cultural nuances aside, this would have still been an emotionally sound piece of storytelling regardless of the film’s grander social commentaries.

From beginning to end, Kansara as Ria shines with charisma, balancing both her comedic and dramatic responsibilities with seamless agility. Arya should be lauded for her perfection of deadpan humour, which cuts through any scene with her simple, yet efficient, gestures and expressions.

Stylistically, Manzoor leans heavily on a playful and kinetic energy, which adds a layer of buoyancy to the film. There’s hints of slapstick comedy embedded into a somewhat crowded screenplay, which was presumably meant to create a sense of chaotic dynamism. The only problem is that the film isn’t nearly as chaotic as it probably needed to be, making Polite Society lose part of the charm it tries so hard to cultivate. And while, the film’s action choreography isn’t the most robust, it’s kept afloat by efficient editing and a bounding soundtrack.

The film needed to be more polarizing in its delivery of emotional beats in order to match the narrative’s heightened reality; unfortunately, it doesn’t push hard enough to achieve that. It’s not to the point where things feel half-baked, though; rather, there’s a sense of lost potential in what could have been — namely, a fully-charged balls to the walls experience. Given the tone established in the film’s opening scenes, there’s almost an expectation that what follows will be an overly stylized exercise in filmmaking. And while there’s hints of that promised style in Polite Society, there simply wasn’t enough of it to make an impact.

Despite losing points in the style arena, Polite Society still succeeds at being a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Manzoor has a keen eye on making culturally specific observations in a manner that feels genuine without being overtly orate. Personally, I would’ve wanted Polite Society to have pushed itself even further, but as it stands, this was a world of fun to watch.

Polite Society was an official selection at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.


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