We’ve seen the interior lives of teenagers brought to fantastical life before in animated forms – just look at Pixar’s Inside Out and Turning Red – but it’s rare to see it take centre stage in live action in the way it does in Nida Manzoor’s fun but jumbled feature debut Polite Society. From school drama that resolves itself through wuxia-style fights to the terrifying and baffling world of adult relationships rendered as a dark conspiracy thriller, Manzoor’s ability to tap into the teenage mind and turn all its anxieties and fears into physical realities is easily Polite Society’s most potent weapon. It’s a powerful central conceit, one that mostly makes up for the occasional sloppiness and frustration found elsewhere.
The teenager in question here is Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), an aspiring stuntwoman whose life is turned upside down when her artist older sister Lena (Ritu Arya), seeming struggling with a bout of depression, suddenly agrees to get arranged married to a man she’s only known for a month. This is Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), a doctor and scion to a very wealthy family, headed up by terrifying matriarch Raheela (Nimra Bucha), loved by everyone except Ria, who senses ill intentions.
At first, Manzoor lets us wonder if it’s all in Ria’s head – her shock at her sister’s decisions and general teenage misunderstandings of the adult world manifesting as paranoia – but it’s not long until she’s proved right in the most absurd way. The plot takes some wild and massive swings that generally work better on an allegorical level – fears of sex, growing up, and having a sister subsumed into another family all getting good play – than a literal one, making for a tone that, in places, gets really dark in a way that Manzoor never fully grapples with.
Kansara makes for a fine lead, forceful yet silly and also rather annoying in the way that teenagers can be (unlike a lot of young protagonists, the irritation you feel here is all completely intentional). Performances across the board are broad, almost cartoonish, Manzoor and her cast always finding ways to make their faces as elastically expressive as possible, especially Bucha, whose regal villainous turn is a highlight. Whilst Polite Society is *fun*, though, it isn’t very *funny*, with most of the gags – be they verbal or visual – taking rather rote paths to their punchlines.
The fighting itself – which has, understandably, been the focal point of the marketing – is also just adequate, often better in idea than execution. There are occasional glimpses of excellence, like the way Ria’s wedding day garb flows around her in the midst of battle, but the choreography is pretty middling and most of the action-scene editing is sub-par. Editing is a bit of problem throughout, actually – though a lot of the characters and individual scenes are enjoyably hyperactive, the film as a whole doesn’t move as fast as it should, giving you too much time to think about how loosely it’s all being held together. Muddled as it is, though, this is still a debut with enough flair and singular ideas to mark Manzoor as yet another talent to watch in what is proving to be a golden few years for emerging British directors.