Clio Barnard returns to the Cannes Film Festival with the British drama Ali & Ava. While billed as a romance, the Directors’ Fortnight entry doesn’t take the path of a traditional idealized love story, instead exploring the connection between a new couple within Barnard’s social realist world. Based on locals that she encountered while filming The Arbor (2010) and The Selfish Giant (2013) in Bradford, it stars Claire Rushbrook (Secrets & Lies) as Ava and Adeel Akhtar (Four Lions) as Ali.
Ava is a single mother and teaching assistant living in the kind of area cab drivers won’t go. Ali is a DJ and landlord who still lives with the wife he’s split from, and is keeping their parting a secret from his family. These characters have a lot of problems, and on paper, they could be living miserable lives in a downbeat film. But, no: Barnard seeks out the positivity and beauty in their lives, with winning results.
Far from stereotypes, these characters have the power to surprise. Ava is more than a busy working class mother with a tragic past: she has academic achievements, ambitions and a hopeful spirit that Ali shares. A complex character, Ali has mood swings and problems with facing up to reality — and he’s also charismatic, loving and kind. Supporting characters also deliver: neighbors, teachers and kids make an impression, and there are emotional journeys for Ava’s angry son Callum (The Selfish Giant’s Shaun Thomas) as well as Ali’s wife Runa (Ellora Torchia).
Akhtar and Rushbrook were invited to take part in a “chemistry test” and it’s clear they passed with flying colors. Rushbrook gives Ava a shy, sweet smile that lights up her face when Ali is present. Meanwhile Akhtar brings out Ali’s sensitivity, humor and impetuous spirit. There’s a beautiful scene in which a group of kids in Ava’s area surround Ali’s car, hurling abuse, seemingly out of boredom and pent-up aggression. He rebukes them, but puts a song on the car stereo — one he knows they will love. The kids cheer, dance and sing along, and Ali ends up piling them all into his car for a lift. It’s a wonderful example of Barnard’s commitment to challenging preconceptions of the working class northern British town — and like everything in Ali & Ava, it feels very real.
The two characters have very different tastes in music, which leads to humorous conversations and also a romantic scene where they listen to each other’s preferred songs on headphones. It’s a neat idea, but the execution with the music mixing doesn’t always feel smooth. But the soundtrack still brings energy, and that’s a small point in a film with such a vivid milieu and lovable characters. All in all, Ali & Ava is a charmer: Barnard’s most accessible and hopeful film to date.
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