Ali & Ava, 2021.
Written and directed by Clio Barnard.
Starring Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar.
Ali and Ava, both lonely for different reasons, meet and sparks fly. Over a lunar month a deep connection begins to grow, despite the legacy of Ava’s past relationship and Ali’s emotional turmoil at the breakdown of his marriage.
There’s a huge dearth of romantic cinema for the middle-aged set, and while Clio Barnard’s new film Ali & Ava is hardly going to cement itself as a Valentine’s Day staple for many, it’s so utterly refreshing to see a film about love in this age bracket that isn’t using it as a pretext for sneering.
The Bradford-set story kicks off by introducing us to gregarious landlord Ali (Adeel Akhtar), who is in the middle of breaking up with his wife while still living with her as a “flatmate” – a decision that, in the history of human decisions, has probably never been a good one.
But while picking up one of his tenants’ children from school on one rainy day, he offers a lift to Ava (Claire Rushbrook), an Irish-born classroom assistant and single mother. Ava’s loneliness is palpable from her longing glances at a couple embracing on the bus, yet her easy back-and-forth with Ali during that initial meeting soon enough sends both of their hearts aflutter.
What struck me most about Barnard’s film while watching it is how it’s never trying too hard. That’s not to back-handedly say that Barnard and her team didn’t put a wealth of effort into every aspect of their picture, but that the dynamic between the title characters feels so utterly emotionally authentic.
One never gets the sense that Barnard is aiming for flowery profundity; this is simply a well-drawn romantic drama as two people entertain the prospect of starting a new chapter at the mid-point of their lives. Ali and Ava’s chemistry feels totally organic as they bond over their musical tastes both similar and not-remotely-alike – Ali loves rap, Ava loves folk – without excess melodramatic wedges being thrust between them.
There is a degree of conflict, though, of course; Ali hasn’t yet informed his family of his marriage’s breakdown, while Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas) hasn’t fully accepted the death of his father – who Ava previously separated from – or the inevitability of his mother finding a new partner.
There is certainly heaviness in both of their pasts; Ali’s marriage dissolved for a very specific and heartbreaking reason where nobody was to blame, and Ava’s ex-husband was a violent abuser who her son, unaware of his actions, continues to idolise as a good man.
Despite all this, there’s far more lightness than dark permeating throughout, the focus trained more keenly on the sweetly romantic, easy-going romance of the two focal characters. It’s incredibly charming stuff, enough that one almost wishes the predictable third-act obstacle – a contrived miscommunication which comes far, far too late in the film to make much impact – wasn’t felt necessary by Barnard at all.
Thankfully this is one minor misstep in a drama that otherwise makes all the right choices, most of all getting out of the way and giving its two leads the floor to own the screen. As the mile-a-minute Ali, Adeel Akhtar is an effortless charmer, his loquacious banter providing uproarious laughs that should swiftly win over audiences as well as Ava herself. Claire Rushbrook meanwhile makes Ava a deeply warm presence of saintly patience as she deals with her intrusive family woes and battles what appears to be low self-esteem.
The pair’s chemistry has an air of improvisation to it, at times feeling like we’re watching a documentary were it not for the more cinematic camerawork on offer. A wonderful sequence where Ali and Ava dance together while listening to different pieces of music is, in its grounded simplicity, more liable to make the heart soar than a dozen contrived meet-cutes in glossier Hollywood features.
But Barnard has also once again delivered a highly visually evocative piece that captures both the bleakness and the beauty of her Bradford setting; the recurring visual of Ali dancing on top of his car in the early hours of the morning, surrounded by a near-encompassing fog, is utterly mesmeric. Speaking of dancing, the needle-drops in this thing are something else, ranging from Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” to Slyvan Esso’s “Radio,” injecting a good deal of pep into a film which, on plot and aesthetics alone, might seem keener to indulge dreary miserabilism.
Yet Barnard’s latest is far from a sloggy depiction of working-class angst with faint flecks of hope; this is a full-hearted romance that finds dramatic rewards a-plenty in its laid-back dynamic. Another sensitive, perceptive winner from Clio Barnard, Ali & Ava orbits around its central characters with endless empathy, as wrought so affectingly by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook’s superb performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.