TIFF ’21 – Clio Barnard’s Ballad Of Warmth And Pain ‘Ali & Ava’ Is A Triumph Of Independent Filmmaking

Ali and Ava stand back to back with each other, each wearing a different set of headphones/earphones. Ali had one of stretched out in front of him like he is conducting something unseen, while Ava has her head thrown back in a moment of pure happiness. The room behind them is in semi-darkness, with the focus purely on their faces.
Image Courtesy of TIFF

From the director of The Arbor and The Selfish Giant comes a love story that crackles with wit, joy, and keenly articulated yearning. The director is Clio Barnard, and the film is Ali & Ava which follows the blossoming romance between a British Asian man, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and an Irish Catholic woman, Ava (Claire Rushbrook). She likes folk music, he likes punk and rap. She’s a classroom assistant at a primary school, he’s a landlord with musical aspirations. They both live in Bradford, depicted by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland as a hulking, industrial mass, and are both evading a seam of pain that runs through their lives. They meet in the school playground and become entangled in a cautious yet exhilarating romance. 

With glaring similarities to fellow social-realist Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss, Ali & Ava is as much about the heat and glare of new love as it is about the pain and complexity of community and extended family. Barnard is no stranger to depicting turbulent and often confounding manifestations of love – The Selfish Giant taught us this much, with its anguished mothers and volatile young men. In Ali & Ava, moments of tenderness coexist besides moments of violence and anger, in a delicately realised web of human emotion. 

Needless to say, the performances at the centre of the film, those of Rushbrook and Akhtar, bolster this film, providing the narrative bedrock. Rushbrook is devastatingly good as Ava, a classroom assistant who radiates warmth and humour around her school children, embodying the kind of ambiguous comfort that children come to expect from favourite teachers. She has lost her sense of identity to the constant strain of motherhood, and to caring for a raft of others – from her neighbour with Bipolar Disorder, to Sofia, a school girl with behavioural peculiarities. 

On the bus to work, she listens to mournful folk music and watches couples kissing each other’s hair and laughing – the sadness of her favorite ballads reflecting her own private desire to be loved. Akhtar as Ali is a mercurial character, his uninhibited joyfulness frequently thwarted by great clouds of emotion that drift across his person. He is burdened with secrets, living with a separated wife, and penned in on all sides by a caring but over-involved Asian family. For him Ava is freedom – she asks him “what you gonna do?” and he responds, “I’m gonna change your life.”

As with any great feat of filmmaking, perfection can be found in the details. Barnard is a filmmaker who not only subscribes to great swathes of romanticism, but also to the stitches in the fabric of life that uncover personhood and a sense of belonging. Ali listens to the rapper Lunar C, a Bradford born-and-bred performer, who talks about ‘young mothers in debt’ and ‘roaming around Bradford and Leeds’. Ava’s house keys are weighed down by a swarm of fluffy keyrings, gifted to her by doting schoolchildren. This rich tapestry of detail in turn speaks to the intricate and dense community that surrounds Ali and Ava, where children are shared between households to alleviate the burden, and doors remain unlocked. 

Ali and Ava’s romance does not exist in a vacuum, removed from the difficulties that often attend working class communities. Ava’s son Calum (played with furious vulnerability by Shaun Thomas) is hostile towards Ali, exhibiting random bursts of violence in an adolescent performance of male protection. His pain is understood later, as Barnard reveals a tumultuous past, where love and violence have often looked like the same thing. Similarly, Ali’s life is curtailed by his parents, who envision a different life for their son. In one particularly arresting moment, Ava reveals how her ex-husband used to ‘put his boots on’ and beat her to incoherence, her breath halting and silver in the dark sky. Her words are not an explanation, a cry for help or a lament (though it would be understandable if they were). Rather they are an admission, devoid of ulterior motive, between two people who feel an unexpected and consuming trust in each other.  Barnard has said that the characters of Ali and Ava, and their story, is based on real people she knows, and this is strikingly obvious in the nuanced depiction of the protagonists. 

If the thrill and tenderness of this film could be distilled into one scene, it would be the one in which Ali, having only recently met Ava, persuades her to sing along to her headphones at the top of her voice. Clad in his own headphones, and absorbed in his own music, Ali and Ava jump on her sofas, close their eyes, lean their backs on eachother and sing. The beauty is in watching Ava, a life-long carer and lover of others, fight through her shyness and lose herself in the thrill of being free and being perceived as a person with her own doubts, her own desires and her own sense of self. 

Ava says to Ali, “every time I look at your face it looks different”. Here’s a film that will look different to every person that watches it, depending on who you are, where you are, what you dream of and what you feel your life is missing. This fact doesn’t diminish the overall beauty of the film (just as it doesn’t diminish Ali’s appeal), instead establishing it as a sprawling, painful,  but relentlessly hopeful requiem to modern love. 

Ali & Ava had its North American premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

by Lydia Rostant

Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: https://thepristineinnerexperience.wordpress.com 
Twitter: @LydiaRostant

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