‘Polite Society,’ Toying With Genre, Subverts Clichés of the Asian Immigrant Experience
While it doesn’t go for broke like ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ the film is worthy of the comparison.
While “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is one of most original films in recent memory, this year’s Sundance entry “Polite Society” bears a surprising number of similarities to the newly anointed Oscar Best Picture.
It revolves around the Asian immigrant experience but subverts all the familiar narratives and tired tropes. It draws on immigrants’ double lives and identity crises yet ratchets those up with elements of sci-fi and fantasy.
In “Everything Everywhere,” a middle-aged immigrant battles on multiple fronts against her husband, her daughter, and the tax lady. In “Polite Society,” Ria, played by Priya Kansara of “Bridgerton,” pulls out all the stops to disrupt the impending marriage of her older sister, Lena — Ritu Arya of “Red Notice”.
Ria, a schoolgirl who worships stunt performer Eunice Huthart, aspires to be a stuntwoman when she grows up. To that end, Ria takes martial arts classes and enlists Lena to record her attempting a flying reverse spin kick as content for social media.
Lena is an art school dropout struggling with a bout of painter’s block. Suffice it to say, they aren’t your stereotypical South Asian overachievers.
Though Ria wants to satisfy her school’s work experience requirement by working with Ms. Huthart, the only options available to her seem to be practical ones such as a pharmacy or dental practice.
She’s also blindsided by Lena’s sudden decision to abandon her artistic calling after unexpectedly catching the fancy of a spouse-seeking suitor way out of her league: Dr. Salim (Akshay Khanna).
Resolved to dig up dirt on Salim, Ria pulls stunts and performs high wire acts in service of her “Operation Wife Hunter,” with an assist from besties Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri).
The covert mission shifts the film fully into espionage-action high gear, while the girls’ naivety and inexperience still provide rich comedic fodder. As it progresses, the story becomes increasingly implausible and unhinged, and not necessarily in a bad way.
Much like “Everything Everywhere,” the premise comes across as comic bookish, but the film feels refreshing and original due to its unlikely heroine, who resembles none of the household names from the Marvel and DC multiverses.
“Polite Society” gives an interesting spin on themes of immigrants’ management of identities, cultures, and expectations . The overall lack of ethnic and religious specificity perhaps makes the characters more relatable and less susceptible to cliché.
Though on the surface Ria worries that Salim will turn out to be a player and Lena a Stepford wife, there is an unspoken undercurrent of Ria’s fear of becoming the family’s lone black sheep and only disappointment. It unveils a vulnerability deep within her and a heart amid the chaos and shenanigans in the film.
Writer and director Nida Manzoor, best known for Peacock’s “We Are Lady Parts” series, also toys with genre conventions. A villain apprehends Ria at one point and of course proceeds to torture her — not with waterboarding, but a spa day complete with waxing.
The filmmaker does not sustain this cheekiness all the way, though. The plot’s sci-fi element takes on an unexpectedly sinister tone and does not offer a lighthearted counter. If one were to nitpick, the episodic inconsistency appears to be the film’s one weak spot.
The cast captivates even as the story progressively demands more suspension of disbelief. Scenes with South Asian decors and costumes always look stunning, even if the sci-fi sets eventually give away the production’s modest means.
While it ultimately doesn’t go for broke quite the way “Everything Everywhere” does, “Polite Society” is worthy of the comparison. It illustrates that heroes indeed come in all shapes and sizes, and measurements for success simply don’t fit everyone. Standard markers of status only distract from what makes each of us unique.