Director: Clio Barnard
Stars: Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rushbrook, Ellora Torchia
With Andrea Arnold experimenting with documentary and overseas work, and Shane Meadows missing in action or just missing in television, it falls to Clio Barnard to carry the torch for grim social realism in the north of England. From her sensational docudrama The Arbor through poverty-line fable The Selfish Giant, Barnard’s cinema has married authenticity with a sense of the audacious. Her latest, Ali & Ava, finds her exploring the ‘chavvy’ borough of Holmewood in Bradford, and how a burgeoning mixed-race relationship causes micro upheavals for those caught in it’s sphere.
Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a former-DJ now landlord who buries himself in music as counter-beat to his dismal home life (separated from his wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia), but still sharing the same space), and the staccato rhythms of his ADHD. When not attending his properties, he’s mainly found taxiing the local reprobate children back and forth across the estate.
It is in this capacity that he meets Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a teacher’s assistant with a plethora of children and grandchildren and a sob story of her own. The two hit it off in spite of their differing tastes in music, finding a degree of solace in one another, much to the consternation of those around them. The most vocal – and threatening – among these is Ava’s eldest son, Callum (Shaun Thomas); a sword-wielding thug who can’t decided on a name for his infant daughter. Callum idolises his deceased father, about whom Ava has lied by omission, and he perceives Ali as an incoming threat to the status quo. For Ali, meanwhile, his tentative bond with Ava has the potential to upset the table at home, where his separation from Runa remains secret.
While fireworks frequently pock the Bradford skyline (placing the action, one assumes, sometime around late autumn), the same can’t be said for Barnard’s storyline, which prefers to remain at a persistent register of nervous tension. It’s refreshing to see a modern romance drama focus on the over-40s, and yet more refreshing to find one that seriously acknowledges how fraught it can be letting one’s defenses down. Relationships require a degree of vulnerability that can be quite scary, especially when past – or even present – battle scars remain tender.
There’s a sense of the rapturous here whenever Barnard keys in on dance and movement as a basic level of expression and even need, along with the general importance of music in our lives. Bodies twitch and shimmy throughout Ali & Ava, be it Ali’s routines on the roof of his car that make him seem like a shadow-dancing boxer, or the Bollywood themed work-out videos that Ava’s kids enjoy imitating. Tellingly, when the feral children of Holmewood start pelting Ali’s car with stones, he uses music to quell and corral them. At the pub, meanwhile, Ava’s Irish heritage is maintained through communal song.
The film also excels in it’s character work. Ava’s backstory might be the stuff of humdrum grim-up-north misery porn, if she hadn’t pulled herself out of darkness. Her route to the present is lowkey inspiring. Ali, meanwhile, is a man who has valiantly learned how to live with himself, creating a modest sense of order around his more chaotic inclinations.
Both Akhtar and Rushbrook are superb. If only they had anything resembling chemistry together. The meet-cute works well, but much of what follows feels somewhat stifled, mismatched or compromised, and the inevitable first kiss looks glaringly awkward and not intentionally. It pricks at the sense of connectivity within the film, and ultimately separates the bubbles in their Venn diagram. In isolation, both are great. Together? Things feel suffused and strained. Perhaps this is an offshoot of how cagy both of their characters feel, forging new connections in a world that constantly judges them.
In an effort to make her characters’ nighttime confessionals intimate, Barnard refuses to add light, natural or otherwise. It’s unfortunately symptomatic of a movie that fetishes gloom as a shortcut to evoking oppression. The result is a piece of work that’s sometimes hard to make out in the dark enclosure of a cinema, let alone the varying light qualities of smaller screens in domestic settings. Who knows what we’ll be able to make out once it hits streaming or physical media? Very little, I’d imagine. For brief intervals Barnard brings rays of sunshine and immediacy into her otherwise dour depiction of Bradford (most of these moments make up the film’s far more urgent trailer). But such episodes are few and far between and more often than not Ali & Ava takes it’s dreariness far too literally. The film has the look of an unhealed bruise.
There is magic here, but it pops quickly like the explosions of fireworks, and becomes lost again in the smoke that hangs in the aftermath.