“Polite Society” parades its girl-power irreverence like a badge of honor. It's brash, scrappy and in your face. The English import is also formulaic to a fault, but the clichés are rendered with such delicious glee that they almost feel fresh. If 2023 spring movies were pageant contestants, this nimble chop-socky comedy would be a strong contender for Miss Congeniality.
The Focus Features release is the feature directing debut of British TV vet Nida Manzoor (“We Are Lady Parts,” “Doctor Who”), and the filmmaker works from a neat idea: she takes the story of two sisters experiencing a rift in their relationship and distills it through the rah-rah trappings of the underdog tale. Then she adds butt-kicking martial arts to give it some pep. The result: a modern-day “Sense and Sensibility” with karate chops.
Setting “Polite Society” in London's Pakistani community makes this clever genre mishmash's specificity feel even more universal. It will be difficult not to see your own family dynamics in the fierce bond between Ria (Priya Kansara) and older sis Lena (Ritu Arya). The Khan sisters have big goals that don't necessarily align with what their parents Fatima (Shobu Kapoor) and Raff (Jeff Mirza) have envisioned for them. Lena has an inclination for painting, but has dropped out of art school. Ria, on the other hand, earns her black sheep credentials by pursuing a career as a stuntwoman.
Mom and Dad may not understand Ria's passion, widely displayed on videos she posts online, but Lena does. So when Lena starts dating Salim (Akshay Khanna), the handsome and wealthy geneticist she meets at a swanky soirée thrown by his scheming mother Raheela (Nimra Bucha), Ria is compelled to slap some sense into her sibling. She sees right through the snobbery, and when it comes to the slick suitor, the red flags fly fast and furious. A sharp-dressed cad who makes his move awfully quick, the preening mama's boy hides behind a Chiclets smile. If that weren't enough, he drives a Maserati, the douchiest of status-symbol rides. Alas, Lena is too infatuated to heed the warning signs.
A poised and determined Ria enlists classmates/besties Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) to help carry out her multi-pronged plan to save her sister from her beau's shady rich family. Kooky disguises, against-the-clock capers and risky brushes with danger ensue. Peppered throughout, naturally, are competently choreographed rumbles that pit Ria against other characters. They make the winsome yet thoroughly predictable shenanigans go down easy.
The mano-a-manos, which make full use of cinematographer Ashley Connor's widescreen compositions, go a long way toward guiding “Polite Society” past overly familiar territory. Robbie Morrison's punchy, montage-driven editing helps keeps everything humming along at a steady clip. And Manzoor whips her solid cast into shape, turning Ria into a champion for all of us younger siblings who have had to endure deflating putdowns from family and friends. Her impulsiveness occasionally risks alienating viewers, so it's a good thing Kansara's screen presence is magnetic. The camera is awfully fond of her.
The film's not-so-secret weapon is Bucha, who turns the overprotective Raheela into a villain worthy of, say, Cinderella's wicked stepmother. She's having so much fun being bad that one wishes Manzoor gave Raheela and, for that matter, her son, more layers. They might be two-faced, but they're pretty one-dimensional. The sisters' parents fare better, especially in a scene where Raff analyzes his older daughter's romantic life in business terms. Still, they're not given nearly enough to do.
It comes as no surprise that “Polite Society” builds toward a climactic confrontation that takes place at a wedding. Unfortunately, that's when the movie starts running out of steam. The costumes dazzle, and a dance routine is skillfully executed, but the spectacle is not enough. Manzoor promises an elaborate heist and a thrilling fight between our heroine and the film's antagonist, but when the moments come, they feel underimagined, agreeably goofy but kind of half-assed. The film's buoyant energy can only take it so far.
But even as “Polite Society” grinds to a halt, its celebration of sisterhood, both literal and symbolic, is pretty hard to resist. It's fun, undemanding popcorn fare, a sassy crowd-pleaser that hits its beats with disarming charm. At its best, it's reminiscent of the early work of Edgar Wright, another Brit moviemaker known for fusing laughs with genre brawn. This tasty snack is no black belt, but it gives your comfort-food movie cravings a decent workout. It'll do.
“Polite Society” starts Friday in theaters across South Florida, including Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place, Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas in Coconut Grove, CMX Cinemas Dolphin 19, Regal Kendall Village and Cinemark Paradise in Davie.