Clio Barnard’s refreshingly grounded, social realist riff on the classic romcom is one of her finest works to date.
Ali and Ava first meet across a rain-soaked school playground. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is Ava’s (Claire Rushbrook) knight in shining armour (or worn tracksuit and beanie), and he innocently offers her a lift home. She tentatively accepts. What unfolds isn’t quite Tristan and Isolde, but a romance that is both sweet and refreshingly authentic.
Bradford is the backdrop as writer/director Clio Barnard depicts a connection that crosses the boundaries of class, culture, and that great social divider – taste in music. Powered by dance and electronic music, former- DJ-turned-landlord Ali spends his days dropping off and picking up the children of his tenants and presumably collecting rents. Self described as ‘over excited’, his charming forwardness is in contrast to Ava.
A classroom assistant of Irish heritage, Ava enjoys old-school folk and country music, its lilting tones suiting her meditations and time spent wistfully watching young couples on the bus home. Despite their differences the spark is instant, and the easy chemistry between Rushbrook and Akhtar does a great job of illustrating the very first wisps of attraction – the initial ‘clicking’ that’s not yet ruled romantic, but with an intriguing gravitation that begs to be explored.
Both parties bring baggage to their union. Ali is separated from his wife Runa (played wonderfully by Ellora Torchia), but remains living with her as he fears the consequences of telling his family the truth. Ava is a widowed mother and grandmother who has suffered abuse in the past and is more assured in tending to the desires of others instead of her own.
Yet Barnard uses the gradual fusion of their musical tastes to illustrate their journey towards each other both physically and emotionally. Cue scenes of the pair sprawled on Ava’s couch chanting ‘New Era (Dawning Of A)’ by The Specials; Ali’s boundless energy giving Ava the push she needs to let herself go, while Ava’s warmth gifts Ali the affection he’s been missing.
Rushbrook brings a vulnerability to Ava that feels incredibly relatable, while Akhtar gives a skillful portrait of a man experiencing both giddy joy and deep despair simultaneously. Barnard deftly weaves the message of renewal across Ali & Ava. Shots across the rooftops at dawn and at night as the city lights glisten in the distance are prevalent throughout the film, as well as Ali’s penchant for watching the new moon.
Having very much lived lives before finding each other, those experiences adding a familiar weariness that bonds the lovers as much as it threatens to break them apart, faith, in second and even third chances, is crucial.
With Ali & Ava, Barnard triumphs in presenting a romance tale that is deeply grounded, yet in its well-matched leads and heartfelt story, still possesses the magic required to sweep the audience off its feet.