A full generation has passed since the empowering and adorable “Bend it Like Beckham.” A lot has changed about the Desi diaspora in the UK, and in cinema about their lives.
The proof is in a mouthy, punchy and gonzo action comedy about an arranged marriage in something quite unlike “Polite Society.”
Writer-director Nida Manzoor’s debut feature is outlandish, over-the-top and furiously funny. She’s the creator of that loopy female Muslim punk band TV comedy “We Are Lady Parts,” and she doesn’t break punk stride in this “You girls these days” look at the state of young womanhood in the fading patriarchy of this corner of Britannia.
Ria, played by Priya Kansara in a break-out performance, is a skinny teen with stuntwoman dreams. She writes letters to her favorite stuntwoman, that badass Eunice Huthart. She makes delusional, slightly inept videos for her Stuntgirl Ria channel and dreams of getting Huthart to let her intern with her.
Her school advisor dismisses that notion. Her indulgent parents are waiting to shut this “silliness” down. And the towering all-girls school bully (Shona Babayemi) kicks her arse when she demands a demonstration.
Only older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) encourages her. But Lena’s freshly-dropped out of art school and a bit lost herself. Then the handsome, rich young doctor Salim (Ashay Khanna) gives her Lena the eye, and his family and their family take an interest in setting them up.
Yes, another generation has passed and they’re a long way from the Subcontinent, but “arranged marriages” are still a thing. Only Dad (Jeff Mirz) doesn’t like the semantics of that “brand.”
“You should see it like ‘Lena has outsourced the search for a suitable match to us so that WE can carry out the necessary due dilligence,” keeping her from wasting “unnecessary emotional capital” on flirting and dating and all that.
Sure, it’s the match.com era and business is business. But it’s nice to see romance still blooms among the Indo-Muslims of the UK.
Ria flips the f-out. And that’s pretty much how this foul-mouthed teen, not shy about talking back to Mum (Shobu Kapur) and Dad, puts it. She won’t allow her sister to give up her art dream for “some smarmy wanker.”
She accuses Lena of “doing a Jane Austen.” And with her schoolmates (Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri), she lays out a plan to tear this wedding asunder.
The teens reference classic romance and action film conventions — obstacles to love, plot devices that might prevent the nuptials. They don disguises to get into a men’s locker room at Salim’s gym and plot even bigger capers as the picture takes a seriously loopy turn past melodrama and into full on diabolical conspiracy, real or imagined.
“Oy! There’s a reason tropes are tropes! Because they work!”
“Polite Society” sprints through its first scenes, struggles a bit when things go over-the-top and finds the fun again for a blitzkrieg of a finale. Yes, there’s a big fat Indian wedding, and a big dance. But there are also epic throwdowns — fights with martial arts movie wirework — big time villainy and a “Thelma & Louise” rag-top T-bird becomes a getaway car.
The larger theme here is hanging on to your dreams, a bit tired and tiresome in this affluent spoiled-kids setting.
But that’s “You girls, these days” in a nutshell, no longer under a familial or cultural thumb and not limiting their dreams to “doctor” or “Stepford Wife” or even simply bending it like Beckham. Try to stop them and you might get an “I am FURY” if you’re lucky. Next thing you know, some Van Damme “helicopter kick” might come right at your noggin.
Rating: PG-13, violence, profanity, sexual situations
Cast: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Ashkay Khanna, Nimra Bucha, Shobu Kapoor, Shona Babayemi, Ella Bruccoleri, Jeff Mirz and Seraphina Beh
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nida Manzoor. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:44