In this simultaneously life-affirming and heartbreaking social-realist love story, Clio Barnard returns with another stunning and astute portrayal of life in Yorkshire. Ali & Ava follows the blooming romance of two, perhaps unlikely, kindred spirits set to the backdrop of inner-city Bradford.
Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a teaching assistant with a sizable family of children and grandchildren who she is constantly putting first. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a DJ turned landlord living with his ex-girlfriend, keeping the illusion of their relationship going to avoid judgement in the community. Their paths cross as Ali drops off his tenant and friend’s daughter at Ava’s school; the chemistry is instant as they provide for each other a much yearned for connection and source of joy.
Though maybe not thought of by many as the most romantic city, Barnard shows beauty in Bradford; golden sunrises over the estates, the chirping of birds over landscape shots of the city and its surrounding countryside. Of course, there is no naivety, Barnard herself has grown up a stone’s throw away from the filming location and truthfully shows the hardship of life in an impoverished area. What is so special about her vision though, is that she resists the temptation of poverty porn and instead shines a light on the strength in the community of this northern city; showing the heart and beauty in the people of Bradford. The film is brimming with inside references to Yorkshire life, from the infamous drivers of Bradford to the ultimate kind gesture of asking somebody “Do you want a brew?” to a scene in the beloved Bradford Waterstones. These little nods to the Yorkshire viewers add an extra element of charm and make the portrayal of day-to-day life feel even more authentic.
Though it celebrates the joys of living in a close-knit community, Ali & Ava explores the claustrophobia of living in an area where to quote Ali, “there are eyes everywhere”. Tensions arise in the relationship as they have to deal with a host of adversities such as class prejudice and past relationships that hang around like shadows and provide a heavy burden. The film charmingly incorporates elements of the road movie genre as the lovers escape to the open space of the moors to avoid the suffocation of watching eyes. Themes of domestic abuse lie in the underbelly of this heartwarming love story and are tackled with sensitivity, there are quiet reflective moments of pain and solitude in a cast of damaged characters.
At the absolute heart of the film are the two lead performances from Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar, their effortless chemistry is utterly convincing and such a treat to watch. There is a staggering naturalism to all the performances, creating an immersive realism to the film. Rushbrook completely embodies a salt of the earth Yorkshire woman from her inch-perfect accent to her general demeanour. In her performance, she visibly carries the weight of a hard life and the responsibility of being a mother and grandmother in her 50s, but her optimism and kindness are evident. Rushbrook shows Ava’s hard exterior but plays her with vulnerability, an instantly loveable and to many, recognisable, character. Adeel Akhtar brings electric energy and is instantly endearing; he plays Ali with such sensitivity and an infectious eagerness. These lead performances are part of what makes the film feel so very intimate and special, they give the film its enormous heart.
A key component of the film is music; from the opening scene to all of the key moments of the relationship, the diegetic soundtrack is key to tracking their relationship. An exceedingly romantic moment occurs when both Ali and Ava listen to their individual music with headphones on and sing to each other, dancing to completely different beats and contrasting songs, yet somehow in sync with each other. Barnard tenderly depicts the love language that is sharing music with a loved one, showing the vulnerability and excitement of sharing a beloved song. Music is escapism for both our protagonists, something that all too many viewers can resonate with. It is the magic that can turn a grey, rainy bus journey into something beautiful; and this is ultimately what Ali & Ava is about. Finding the wonder and romance in the mundane and bleak, it is this life-affirming and uplifting message that makes this film so special.
Ali & Ava is part-funded by Screen Yorkshire, who have a track record for funding independent Northern productions, as well as providing trainee schemes and diversity initiatives to get more Yorkshire based people involved in the film. In an industry that is so London centric and excluding the working class, it is vital to share stories such as Ali & Ava that do not usually have the spotlight on them. It combats the negative perception of Northern working-class communities and instead provides a tender love story about kindness and finding beauty in normality. These are the stories we need to be seeing on our screens.
Ali and Ava was released in theatres in the United Kingdom on 4th March.
by Chloe Slater
Chloe (she/her) is a film fanatic and proud northerner hailing from West Yorkshire. She is currently studying an MA in Film Studies at The University of Manchester. She has an affinity for Japanese animation, fantasy films and anything that Greta Gerwig touches! Outside of her love for film, she is a big football fan, supporting Blackburn Rovers. Chloe can also be found playing guitar and bass or watching live music. Favourite films include: Spirited Away, Ladybird, Lost in Translation, Frances Ha, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.