Ali & Ava

This lyrical social-realist drama from British filmmaker Clio Barnard tells a tender and touching tale about two West Yorkshire residents looking for love and happiness.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 28, 2022


All plot, all the time: that's how some filmmakers craft movies. Every scene leads to the next, then to the next and so on, connecting the story dots so that event A plus event B (plus event C, event D, event E and more) neatly equals wherever the narrative eventually ends up. Clio Barnard is not one of those writers or directors. Every scene always leads to the next in every film that tells any tale, no matter who's spinning it, but much of what happens in the Dark River and The Selfish Giant helmer's movies doesn't change, shift or drive the plot at all. Indeed, her features often have storylines that seem straightforward, as the tender and tremendous Ali & Ava does. But that uncomplicated appearance — including here, where a man and a woman meet, sparks fly, but complications arise — couldn't be more deceptive.

In Ali & Ava, that man and woman are indeed Ali (Adeel Akhtar, Killing Eve) and Ava (Claire Rushbrook, Ammonite), both residents of Bradford in Barnard's native West Yorkshire. He's a working-class landlord — a kind and affable one, noticeably — from a British Pakistani family, and was once an EDM DJ. She's an Irish-born teacher's assistant at the school where one of Ali's tenants' children attends. Frequently, he's on drop-off and pick-up duty, because he is that helpful to his renters. So, when the skies open one day during his school run, Ali offers Ava a ride home rather than seeing her walk to the bus in the pouring rain. They chat, click, laugh, bond over a shared passion for music and slowly let their guards down. But what would a romance be, especially an on-screen one, if the path to love truly was effortlessly smooth?

With a lyrical social-realist bent that'd do Ken Loach, living patron saint of British lyrical social-realist filmmaking, proud — see: Loach's I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You for his two most recent examples — Barnard unpacks everything that roughs up Ali and Ava's tentative courtship. But there's another English director who springs to mind, too, thanks to the way that Ali & Ava can turn from poignant to portentous in a second: This Is England and The Virtues' Shane Meadows. His work finds bliss and joy in ordinary, everyday moments, and also violence and menace as well. One can become the other so quickly that, if it didn't all feel so genuine and authentic, a case of whiplash might be the end result. All three filmmakers possess a commitment to detailing lives that aren't typically fodder for celluloid dreams; all three, including Barnard with The Selfish Giant and now Ali & Ava, make features in the vein that are potent, perceptive, dripping with empathy and as emotionally raw as films come.

Ali, friend to everyone, is troubled by more than just regret about no longer hitting the decks. He has a wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar), who no longer loves him or wants to be with him. But he's too proud to tell his family, so they still live together while she keeps studying. That brings judgement his way, with his sister Usma (Krupa Pattani, Ron's Gone Wrong) vocal in her disapproval about his growing closeness with Ava. It makes Ava apprehensive as well, unsurprisingly. She already has enough of her own worries as it is, caring for her five kids — some of which have had kids of their own — as a single mother. One, her son Callum (Shaun Thomas, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), remains affected by his father's death a year earlier, and also his parents' breakup before that. He's far from welcoming to Ali as a result, terrifyingly so, hating even the idea of him as his mother's potential friend.

Writing a devastatingly layered script, Barnard spies the myriad of factors that test her titular twosome. She sees them with unflinching eyes, in fact. Racism is a constant that Ali is forced to live with. For Ava — who has a top arts degree, but needs a secure job that makes ends meet to support her family — classism has long worked the same way. On both sides, someone that Ali and Ava each knows has a strong, instant, knee-jerk reaction. On both sides, the pair's past woes linger like ghosts. Barnard took inspiration for Ali and Ava from people she met while making her other movies, and she knows that there's nothing that's simple about anyone's life, not for a moment. She knows that we're all haunted by everything that's ever pierced our happiness and shattered our fantasies, and she's determined to wade through exactly what that means.

Grief, trauma, domestic violence, mental health, the responsibilities of being a parent and grandparent, the expectations of families, the strength it takes to care for others, the weight of forsaking your hopes and wishes for someone else, the complexities of looking for love when a big chunk of your days are behind you: they all have a place in this deeply thoughtful film. So does daring to put yourself first, striving to work past each and every roadblock, being willing to fight for what you want, and braving the unshakeable truth that nothing is ever 100-percent rosy. These themes, ideas and factors all percolate as the movie spends time with Ali and Ava, rather than through purposeful and overt plot point after purposeful and overt plot point. Again, that's the kind of filmmaker that Barnard is. Off-screen, we get to know people through their company; on-screen here, with cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland shooting as he did with the director's astonishing 2010 debut The Arbor, that's what Ali & Ava does, too.

The picture's namesakes, and the actors behind them, prove exceptional company. They provide wonderfully laid-bare performances as well, which Barnard directs — and Birkeland lights and lenses — with feeling to match. Just as Ali and Ava's existences swing between euphoric and struggling, the movie about them balances its naturalistic, keenly observant approach with a poetic eye. Never is this more apparent than in scenes where Ali, Ava or both are listening to music. Sometimes he dances on top of his car, or on her couch. Sometimes they sit in his vinyl-filed basement. Sometimes they're just driving. Wherever they are and whatever they're listening to, forcefully and dutifully progressing the plot is never the point; learning who Ali & Ava's eponymous figures are, and understanding them as intensely as possible, always is.


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