I’d heard the murmurings about Polite Society and its Scott Pilgrim-esque flights of fantasy action, which made me eager to watch it. The framework of a rom-com wrapped in a South Asian ribbon and forged in the fires of Edgar Wright’s visual flair meant that whatever else you thought of Nida Manzoor’s debut movie, there’s no denying it combined some fresh ingredients with the familiar ones.
It’s a funny, personal tale with family at its heart and a scenery-gnawing villain that would embarrass many of those offered up by modern comic book adaptations. But the most surprising thing about Polite Society’s greatness is that it takes a big old swerve into Horrorville.
The film’s plot sees a pair of ambitious sisters striving to do something in their chosen field. The elder sister has art, and the younger is adamant she’ll become the next great stuntwoman. The film deals with how you come to realize specific dreams might be more challenging to fulfill than others, and how the fear of failure can lead you down terrible paths.
Their collective drive is shattered when elder sister Lena (Ritu Arya) meets the man of her dreams, Salim (Akshay Khanna), and shies away from her artistic tendencies, much to her younger sister Ria’s (Priya Kansara) frustrations. Ria begins to suspect there’s something off about her sister’s new beau, and when the pair get engaged, Ria goes on the hunt for proof he’s a bad egg.
Polite Society gaslights Ria and the audience into thinking it’s just desperate despair from Ria, who needs her sister’s passion for art to match her own passion for being a stuntwoman. Frustration concerning their lack of progress in either field plays a huge part in pushing these closely bonded sisters apart as the film progresses. Still, Ria does make a discovery that changes everything if she can get anyone else to believe her.
This is the real spoiler cliff now, so if you want to go into Polite Society relatively cold (and you really should), then this is the jump-off.
As much as Polite Society dabbles in spreading itself across genres and being somewhat fantastical, it does feel primarily grounded in romance and drama. That is until it takes its horror swerve regarding Lena’s sudden romance.
Ria’s snooping uncovers an underground lab dedicated to finding the perfect host for Salim’s child, and Lena is the perfect candidate. A conspiracy of scientific experimentation, drugging, and subterfuge is unveiled, but the big problem is that Ria has already disgraced herself in trying to prove her sister’s new man is not on the level. So begins a delightfully ludicrous heist that is part Jane Austen adaptation, part Edgar Wright visual extravaganza, and part Bruce Lee movie.
The body horror swerve of that lab is so unexpected and fittingly is up there with the abrupt genre hops of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Last Night in Soho. We are already told Polite Society should be somewhat fantastical, but it fits a theme until then, and given those obvious influences, you expect any shift in tone to be something a little safer.
Instead, we get what appears to be a surface-level chuckle about a Mommy’s Boy becoming prickly, and uncomfortable truth. It turns out Salim’s overprotective mother (a barnstorming turn by Nimra Bucha) wants to have another crack at life and has found a way to effectively be born again, with the right host, of course, and Lena’s womb happens to be the perfect place for her soon-to-be mother-in-law’s rebirth.
Aside from the creepy twisting of an age-old story of grandparents looking to get a do-over of sorts with their grandchildren, the fact Lena is drugged and tested to see if she is the most viable candidate is an unpleasant revelation. And all the while, she’s being swept off her feet by a man who had been shaped into the kind of guy she likes at a low point in her life.
Happily, the truth comes out, and we return to the ass-kicking and jovial shenanigans. Polite Society’s overarching plot is familiar, somewhat predictable, fare, but it’s full of fine moments that keep it fresh, and that swerve into horror is one of the most outstanding examples of that.