If “Political Society” were a Jane Austen novel, a big wedding would be the happiest ending, but the film’s feisty teenage hero, Rhea Khan (Priya Kansara), sees her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) do business with an industrial career for a husband. Feels like game over. If Lena can’t make it as a painter, what hope is there for Rhea, who dreams of becoming a stuntwoman? It’s the roadie feature debut from Engine Driving writer-director Nida Manzur, who takes on everything from Sergio Leone to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” in her wild and often outrageous route to save Lena from the indignity of an (almost) arranged marriage.
Bringing irreverent pop culture mojo to the story of a middle-class British Pakistani family, “Polit Society” packs much of the same appeal that made “Bend It Like Beckham” such a hit two decades ago, along with a twist that “Pan Out.” Strength in the mix. “Beckham” may have made Keira Knightley a star, but it hasn’t done much for the community: In the meantime, surprisingly few films have focused on the UK’s second-largest ethnic minority population — and none with Manzoor’s degree of personality here.
Helmer comes to an already fairly accomplished job by creating the limited series “We Are Lady Parts,” about a punk band made up of Muslim women. Here, her protagonist is a 16-year-old girl of South Asian descent whose twin obsessions — karate and parkour — defy her cultural straitjacket in her parents’ minds. Rhea wants to pursue a career in martial arts, enlisting Lena to shoot demo videos for her YouTube channel and writing fan letters to personal idol Eunice Huthart, a stunt double on everything from “Tomb Raider” to “Star Wars.” What Rhea doesn’t realize is how indulgent her parents (a wonderful Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) have been so far.
When she and Leena are invited to an Eid function hosted by London’s most eligible bachelor Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna), Rhea rolls her eyes and sneaks around the house. He is suspicious of such rituals and absolutely terrified of Lena falling for this cad in the days to come. Sure she’s pretty, fit, and a brilliant doctor to boot—Salim saves the babies, or something like that—with perfect teeth, a nice car, and an air of nobility.
But not a housewife, Lena wants to be an artist! Or so Rhea is convinced, a state of mind that Kansara – a natural who, believe it or not, has never played a major role until now – plays with deliciously exaggerated fury. Meanwhile, everyone around her seems pretty happy with where things are going … in a wedding ceremony that would put “Crazy Rich Asians” to shame. But this only confuses Riya more. It seems she is surrounded by brainwashed pod people, and only she can see that marriage would be the worst thing for Lena. And so he starts digging up dirt on Selim and, failing that, sabotages the event outright.
Let’s pause for a moment to admit that Rhea isn’t the least bit dramatic about such things, and that her best friends Clara and Alba (Serafina Beh and Ella Bruccolieri) are good games to humor her, but they have their limits. It’s not dressing up as friends and sneaking into the men’s locker room to steal Selim’s laptop at the gym – they’re game for that mission, which is F. But Rhea is an intense personality, snapping and cursing rudely when things don’t go her way, and after a point, she starts to seem like a brat — one of those hopelessly misunderstood kid characters cooked up by Neil Gaiman or Roald Dahl. .
There’s a goofy, deliberately over-the-top quality to the acting and writing, and while it’s not entirely believable (it’s not even trying to be), Manzoor’s screenplay combined with his convoluted line readings make for an infinitely quotable future classic if ” Political Society” could find its audience (which is younger than its Sundance Midnight Movie status), making it a generational touchstone. That is, if Focus Features can convince content-saturated youngsters that this hilariously deranged high school comedy — which makes room for fight scenes and a hilarious, homicidally choreographed musical number — is worth watching.
When Riya’s latest mission (entering Salim’s room and putting a condom full of hand lotion on the scene) goes south, viewers can finally agree that she’s gone too far. But Manjoor is just getting started, taking the movie into thematically appropriate (patriarchy-challenging) “Twilight Zone” territory. In all this, the villain Selim is not unlike his mother Rahela (Nimra Bucha), who quips, “Behind every great man, there is a very tired mother who has given up everything.” Well, and revered Pakistani stage and screen star Bucha is just the person to sell such a line. He can contort his face into Machiavellian expressions that you thought only Disney animators could achieve, making for a very satisfying climactic battle between him and Rhea.
These conflicts, which begin with a fight against school bully Kovacs (Shona Bebemi) and escalate as the film unfolds, are presented as “Mortal Kombat”-style showdowns, complete with gravity-defying wirework and slow-motion effects. In many ways, “Polite Society” comes off as a giant pastiche of Manzoor’s favorite movie references, paying homage to films from around the world through distinct shots and sound cues. But there’s no denying his creativity or the unmistakable original voice he brings to his characters. Ultimately, though Rhea proves her resistance to Leena’s marriage, the final scene feels like the opposite of “The Graduate,” as the movie’s anti-Austen ending leaves viewers wondering what’s next for the Khan sisters.