A sweetly ambiguous love story, British film Ali & Ava is already making an impact. Nominated for two BAFTAs, Ali & Ava not only showcases home-grown talent, it gives a voice to a community not often heard.
Reviewed by Helen Tope
The film is set in contemporary Bradford and introduces us to the central characters as they go about their day. Ali (played by Adeel Akhtar) is a local landlord. Ebullient and well-liked, he helps his tenants out by taking their daughter to school. It is here he meets Ava, a classroom assistant (Claire Rushbrook). The two are firmly working class, but director and screenwriter Clio Barnard is careful to mark the differences between them. Ali’s terraced street contrasts sharply to Ava’s bustling estate.
After offering to drive Ava home during a rainstorm, the two begin to discover common ground. Music plays a huge part in both their lives: Ali is a former DJ, and Ava is a fan of country and folk as these were the songs her Dad used to perform in local pubs. The initial juxtaposition of their tastes – Ali’s love of techno and ambient house, with Ava’s softer, folksy roots – gives way to a glorious deep dive into music. The soundtrack, curated by Connie Farr and Harry Escott, covers a vast aesthetic space, with tracks from Sylvan Esso, The Specials and Bob Dylan. This is not just background filler; the music in Ali & Ava is how the characters access unspoken emotions. Music is the heartbeat of the film, and provides many of its best moments. The scene where Ali fends off children from Ava’s estate by cranking up the music on his car stereo, is simply joyous. The ability of music to connect – overriding class, religion and gender – is a central motif brilliantly illustrated by Barnard, who playfully refers to her film as a “social realist musical”. The connection between Ali and Ava builds, and the friendship moves into something more tender. They realise they have found an opportunity to move on from the fallout of their previous relationships.
However, it is these elements that begin to insert themselves between the couple. Ali’s tight-knit Muslim family is unaware that he and his wife have separated, and Ava’s relationship with her son Callum (Shaun Thomas) is clouded by the abuse meted out by her former husband. Barnard’s script is uncluttered, but full of nuance. Her sketching of Ali and Ava, in the brief opening scenes, is skilfully done, as we quickly latch onto them as characters. When complications make their presence felt, our loyalties are always with the couple.
The performances from Rushbrook and Akhtar are perfectly pitched. Akhtar tempers Ali’s sunny disposition with a bruising melancholy as he struggles to accept the end of his marriage. Rushbrook’s portrait of a single, working-class woman is clear-eyed and intelligent. The layers of history, hidden just beneath the surface, only emerge as Ava allows herself to become more comfortable with Ali. This is a romance that never feels rushed, but the moments where the couple can be together are richly poetic.
Ali & Ava’s unhurried quality is what makes this film so special. This is a narrative full of surprises, but each reveal feels authentic. Bursts of emotion, as shown in Barnard’s repeated metaphor of fireworks, hold back the darkness and complexity of their day-to-day lives, even if just for a few moments. This is a film that looks for the light at every opportunity, hoping that Ali and Ava’s love will defy the odds.
Ali & Ava is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema from Friday 25th – Thursday 31st March. We will be celebrating the music theme that runs though the film by playing some records before the screening on Friday 25th. We’ll then be giving this record player away as a prize to one lucky person in attendance, and the sweet tin mix tapes to six more!