By James Wyard (UK)
Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava is a feel good film that avoids any wishy washy sickliness. It holds up and exposes the difficulties and divides within Bradford but it does not falter from showing the lively, spirited and caring aspect to these parts.
There is an obvious warmth and goodness that both characters show towards others but are not shown enough towards themselves. As their personal lives reveal and unfold throughout the film they start to provide what each other needs and is looking for. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) has a pluckiness and a naught to 100 personality that is infectious towards the softer and slower personality of Ava (Claire Rushbrook). This is presented in their music taste; Ali’s is dance and Ava is folk.
As the relationship builds, the music takes centre stage and elevates the film to wondrous and euphoric levels. Such as the scene at Ava’s house where the two of them are sitting back to back listening to their music and singing out loud. It is an aliainterweaving of the song ‘Radio’ by Sylvan Esso with ‘Something on Your Mind’ by Karen Dalton. It’s simply beautiful, the music will give you goosebumps but it’s a scene that allows Ava to come out of her shell following the exuberant Ali as he encourages her to do so.
Ali is a landlord with a heart, taking an active caring role, for example he encourages a stubborn child of one of his tenants to go to school and then later on picks her up at the end of the day. This same child just happens to be who Ava cares for at school. Cue one rainy day where Ava is waiting with the child to be picked up by Ali. A lift is offered to Ava and the two start to click straight away. Ali has a playful energy about him and this is reflected when he is around children but also around Ava. He can turn hostile situations into light and fun encounters. The day Ali first happens upon Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas) is a brutally hostile moment, where Callum goes upstairs to bring down a sword to threaten Ali into leaving. He leaves but on his way out calls the son Zoro and is able to turn this level of intimidation into something of a joke. Ava needs Ali’s understanding and non judgemental attitude, but it’s not just Ava who feels she has too much baggage for the other.
Ava is scarred by her past, especially after she was beaten by the boot of her former partner. This aggressive personality exists in her son’s behaviour and attitude towards Ali. There are racial divisions that exist within the film, and forms part of the disapproval Avas’ oldest son Callum and Daughter (Mona Goodwin) hold towards Ali. Despite the lack of acceptance Ali experiences from Avas Family, he never lets it drag him down. Their want to be with each other grows as does the romantic side of their relationship which is warm and gentle. Something that Ava needs after all she has been through in the past.
The film gives so much heart to those it presents, such as that of Ali’s outgoing wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) that he lives with and that he says he still loves. Throughout the film he is coming to terms with the fact she is moving on from him, he has accepted this but the film shows a sadness that both have in the fact their love for each is coming to an end. One of the most heartfelt moments of the film is when Ali and Runa embrace to the music of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mama, You Been on My Mind’. It is a good thing that this aspect of the film is given air to breathe. Ali’s mind works at a fast pace, he sees himself as a failed DJ, making music and now sharing it with Ava. He uses music almost cathartically, with sequences throughout the film of him standing on his car roof dancing to the thumping beat of the song ‘radio’. Throughout the film there are happy scenes with Ali’s family and his wife is always there. This is another factor that is painful for Ali. These scenes appear so joyful, to see his family smile and Runa smile with them all makes the process of her leaving that much harder. Ali asks Runa to not reveal what really is going on in order to protect him from how his family will judge him.
There are some beautiful shots within this film that give it an almost dreamlike feeling. The cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland gives Ali and Avas building relationship a fantastical feeling of warmth and joy. From the glows of a fun fair in one shot to the bustling wind as the couple stand on a high peak on their weekend away together. There are many more moments when Bradford isn’t just portrayed with dullness. Despite the deprivation of the area, there is a community of people willing to look out for one another, reflected brilliantly by the selfless Ava.
Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook give exceptional performances, they portray the nuances of their happiness and struggles, often without saying anything at all. Clio Barnard allows scenes without much narrative stake to brilliantly capture emotions that both characters are going through. Ultimately, Ali and Ava are triumphant and the film never strays away from the core love story at play. The music is emphatic and wonderfully weaved into the film, with it hitting all the right tunes at all the right moments.