Hissing "I am the Fury", suburban schoolgirl Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) throws herself into a stream of kung fu leaps, punches and roundhouse kicks for her YouTube channel. A wannabe stuntwoman, she’s the surprise heroine of this rowdy and wildly charming action comedy, whose writer/director Nida Manzoor – in her debut feature – switches up the genre by representing South Asian girls as fighters rather than fragile flowers.
Bringing the same brash, punky, teen vibe as her BAFTA-winning TV comedy We Are Lady Parts, Manzoor rustles up a playful, high-energy caper, centered on a ferocious sibling bond. Ria’s idolized elder sister Lena (The Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya), a failing art student, has fallen suspiciously rapidly for wealthy bachelor doctor Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), and Ria is determined to torpedo their upcoming marriage.
Sisterhood’s pains and loyalties root the movie (hell, it worked for Frozen), providing novel emotional stakes that contrast nicely with the traditional emphasis on romance or bromance in action movies. Desperate for both sisters to have dream careers rather than prestige marriages, Ria is horrified by her pleasant parents’ hunger for Lena to settle down.
Though not a Bend It Like Beckham-ish culture-clash comedy, the film isn’t shy of flagging some sharply funny opinions about the social pressures on South Asian women to marry. The business-like Mr Khan (Jeff Mirza) assures his horrified daughter that Salim is a catch, and that the only answer to the overly competitive "free market for marriages" is the parental outsourcing that produced Lena’s arranged union.
Sparring, bickering and cheering each other on, the driven Kansara and charmingly cool Arya make Ria and Lena’s sibling relationship feel rich, real and then increasingly fractious, when Ria launches ‘Operation Wifehunter’ to dig up dirt and smear hated "smarmy wanker" Salim. Pouring out her suspicions in unanswered emails to (real-life) stunt star Eunice Huthart, Ria has never been so alone.
As Ria’s relationship-wrecking attempts turn wilder, Manzoor’s story is propelled by its cheerfully inventive approach to genre, which confidently mashes up Jackie Chan-style combat and high-school comedy with Bollywood spectacle. So after Ria’s naked hostility and snooping causes friction at the Shahs’ lavish ‘Eid soirée’ and at family dinners, the comedy of manners about Muslim marital expectations vs "following your dream" gives way to an energetic action quest of scrappy fights and tense, thieving capers.
Manzoor plaits it all together with vintage-sounding Bollywood dance tunes, tight transitions and goofy visual gags. In the fashion of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, cringe-comedy interludes slam into punchy bouts that loosen reality, as in the scene where Ria takes on school bully Kovacs (the fights have jaunty, retro, Street Fighter-font title captions) in a hail of vicious Ken Masters kicks and shattered bookcases.
Only a swerve late on into ‘social thriller’ mode feels a little less nimble, as Ria’s deft but bungled break-in at Shah’s mansion uncovers potentially horrific secrets. Manzoor is smart enough to use this scary twist as a useful story destabilizer (has Ria lost her grip, or descended into paranoia?). But the film’s nod at a Get Out-style terror streak feels over-ambitious, a rare false step.
Otherwise, Polite Society stays zippy and exuberant, aided by Manzoor putting the comic storylines at the movie’s heart. They’re largely the property of school pals Alba and Clara (the pleasingly sarcastic Ella Bruccoleri and Seraphina Beh); recruited to help execute Ria’s wild schemes, the duo inject shrieking enthusiasm and panicky resourcefulness into risky blags and heists.
The film is at its most bouncily PG-13 here, high on friendship and fumbled plans. Watching them steal Salim’s laptop from his locker by swaggering nervously into the men’s changing room in fake mustaches is a sweaty triumph. Extra points are gained, too, for the way Manzoor’s coming-of-age film translates the visceral feelings teens have when arguing into big, OTT, martial-arts throwdowns.
The crunchy but not cartoonish fight scenes send Ria whirling and bloody-nosed through school brawls, brutal sisterly fisticuffs and a whiplash tag-team tussle with deadly beauticians delivering a wicked waxing. By the time of the Bollywood-style action climax and Ria’s no-guts-no-glory stand-off with the film’s villain, every wirework-filled confrontation has served a different flavor.
What holds everything together and stops the film from sliding into a winking spoof is the intensity of newcomer Kansara’s performance. Her obsessive Ria drives the movie’s frantic pace with sheer willpower and scrappy physical courage. Sure, she’s bratty and over-dramatic, and seems positively unhinged to Salim’s equally formidable mother Raheela (Ms. Marvel’s Nimra Bucha, dialing the intimidation up to 11). But you’re always conscious that it’s Ria’s overwhelming love for Lena that drives this sister to do it for herself.