Sundance movie review: Fun 'Polite Society' kicks traditional rom-coms

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Ria (Priya Kansara) practices martial arts in “Polite Society.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Jan. 22 (UPI) — Polite Society, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, is like Bend It Like Beckham for martial artists instead of soccer players. The heroine’s action-packed interest adds a fun twist to the traditional British romantic-comedy.

Teenage Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a stuntwoman when she grows up. Ria is close with her older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), who helps her train and films Ria practicing martial arts.

Ria’s Pakistani parents and British teachers pressure Ria to do something more traditional with her life. When Lena agrees to an arranged marriage with Salim (Akshay Khanna), Ria won’t lose her biggest supporter without a fight.

Ria solves more of her problems with punches and kicks than the usual British rom-com heroine. When she fights, Kansara has moves, and impressive stuntwomen to assist the more complex ones, but you see Kansara’s face on camera during a lot of the choreography.

While the addition of any fighting distinguishes Polite Society from the usual Hugh Grant or Emma Thompson fare, it is still a British comedy about relationships. It doesn’t turn into John Wick and there’s still less fighting than the average Steven Seagal movie.

But, when Ria believes Salim and his family are taking Lena away from her, it plays out as more of an action movie subplot than a relationship drama. Ria’s confrontation with Salim’s mother, Raheela (Nimra Bucha) definitely takes the wicked stepmother role to Bond villain levels.

So when Ria gets into trouble, instead of comedic set pieces, she has to fight her way out of the situation. The fights are more comical than a straight martial arts movie, but still fun to watch.

Ria’s friends, Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) help Ria on some of her espionage missions against Salim. They are a charming trio, but Alba and Clara unfortunately disappear for a long stretch, too.

As a British wedding comedy set in the milieu of the United Kingdom Pakistani community, Polite Society doesn’t give its base genre short shrift either. Ria even performs a Hindi dance at the ceremony, so there’s a little of everything in Polite Society.

If Polite Society encourages new audiences to explore the sort of martial arts movies of which Ria is a fan, that will be a win. Even if it only gives Kansara and Arya a vehicle to shine in a female-positive action rom-com, that’s a win too and hopefully Polite Society won’t be the last of its kind.

Focus Features will release Polite Society April 7 in Britain and April 28 in the United States.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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