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Review: Ali & Ava

July 29, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Ali & Ava, the latest film from British writer-director Clio Barnard, is a low-key love story between Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and Ava (Claire Rushbrook), two lonely working class folks in the United Kingdom who come from different backgrounds (him British-Pakistani and her Irish-born), but form a close bond between them.

Ali is a former DJ and landlord who has become friends with the Slovakian family renting one of his properties, even taking their young daughter Sofia (Ariana Bodorova) to school. This is where he meets Ava, who works as a teaching assistant in the girl’s classroom.

It’s raining when he comes to pick Sofia up, and Ali offers Ava a ride. She politely refuses, he gently insists, and she gets in the car with him and Sofia. It’s a “meet cute” of sorts that, like everything else in this tender film, feels grounded in reality.

Ali is in the final stages of a relationship with Runa (Ellora Torchia), who still lives with him while she finishes her studies, but they are all but separated, including sleeping in different rooms. Ava is a mother of five and young grandmother with her own troubled past in terms of relationships. He loves punk rock and dance music, while she exclusively listens to country and folk, but they bond over dancing and develop a mutual trust with each other.

Set in Bradford, West Yorkshire, the story of Ali & Ava was inspired by a pair of real people that Barnard met while filming two of her previous features (The Arbor and The Selfish Giant) in the town, and there is an authentic, lived-in quality to the film. Barnard’s screenplay finds its most impactful moments in the ways that it subtly explores racism, grief, trauma and abuse, weaving these themes into a naturalistic romance. The naturalism of the film carries through in the impressive performances of the leads.

Akhtar’s Ali is spirited and full of life, but the actor does a moving job of revealing the grief that invades the edges of his psyche (including the evocative imagery of Ali dancing atop his station wagon to music in his headphones, a mix of freedom and anguish in his movements). Rushbrook delivers a sensitive portrayal of a woman who is tentative in allowing herself to get close to another person, including small moments when she opens up in Ali’s presence.

The result is a gentle and bittersweet film (though not one without several moments of upheaval), that allows the relationship between its characters to slowly and naturally grow over the course of a quietly engaging, character-driven story that builds to a touching conclusion.

Ali & Ava is now playing in limited release in select cities, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Game Theory Films.

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