Synopsis: Clio Barnard’s latest film focuses on a blossoming relationship between British Pakistani, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and Irish-born, Ava (Claire Rushbrook). Ali and Ava are from very different backgrounds and at different stages in their lives, but a bond quickly develops over their mutual love of music. However, will their relationship be able to overcome the personal challenges in their lives?
Barnard’s Ali & Ava could easily be described as ‘Loachian’ in its depiction of working-class Britain. However, to do so would be a disservice to this already accomplished director, whose previous films include: The Abor (2010) and The Selfish Giant (2013). What is accurate, is that both directors are invested in depicting social realism – from their scripts to their characters, and even their use of diegetic music. Barnard’s film takes an instantly familiar Northern setting, adds characters working low paid jobs, and then mixes in a host of familial issues. In summarising it, it sounds – and is – cliched, and yet, Barnard has delivered another ‘authentic’ film that depicts its working-class characters with compassion and respect.
Filmed in Bradford, West Yorkshire, there are multiple shots that demonstrate the beauty of the old, post-industrial town. In one scene, the film’s cinematographer, Ole Birkeland, shoots rows of terraced houses against the backdrop of a rising sun – the sky and frame filled with a beautiful red hue. Through cinematography and the film’s characters, Barnard clearly alludes to the vibrancy of life that is still contained within these ‘forgotten’ communities.
An Empathic Filmmaker
The film demonstrates Barnard’s empathetic approach to her craft. As with many of her contemporaries – whether it’s Andrea Arnold, Shane Meadows or Ken Loach – Barnard’s humanist sensibility is infused with her filmmaking. This is evidenced by her well-crafted characters and the performances she elicits from her cast. It’s this approach that makes Ali & Ava such a surprisingly heartwarming film, which is a notable achievement, given that the film features racism, failing marriages, children struggling with the loss of a father, and the legacy of domestic abuse. It has the potential to feel claustrophobic or even depressing, but it never did. If anything, the film leaves you with an overwhelming sense of hope (despite the seriousness of its themes).
Ali & Ava
When Ali and Ava first meet, it’s pouring with rain. Ali arrives at the school where Ava works to pick up his tenant’s daughter, but she’s busy talking to Ava. Thus, Ali and Ava are awkwardly introduced to each other by the tenant’s child. Due to the rain, Ali offers to drive Ava home.
Once they’re alone in the car, it’s here that the two bond over their mutual love of music. Ali favours punk-rock, dance or hip-hop, whereas Ava prefers folk. It’s a scene that could feel clumsy or cliched in less capable hands, but Barnard – and her actors – deliver a moment of believable connection between two people from very different backgrounds.
And while their musical tastes differ, they both enjoy the experience of music and the escapism that can occur when immersed in it. It’s never spoken or explicitly alluded to, but there’s an implicit suggestion that both characters manage their mental health – to some extent – with music.
Domestic Abuse and Racism
While ultimately I found Ali & Ava uplifting, it is worth noting that it does explicitly discuss themes of domestic abuse and racism. Ava’s deceased husband, Paul, abused her and their oldest child, Michelle. It is also implied that he was a member of the National Front and it’s clear that his racism has affected his children’s worldview. Ava’s oldest son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), is especially affected. Given the themes outlined, I would caution that anyone affected by either issue could find themselves ‘triggered’ by some of the scenes in the film.
A Legacy of Domestic Abuse, Racism and Toxic Masculinity
The scenes between Callum, Ava and Ali are all tinged with tension, especially as the adolescent struggles with his role in the family home (after his father’s death). Callum doesn’t understand that he’s a victim of his father’s toxic legacy – not only has he inherited his father’s racism but he’s also inherited his toxic masculinity. Callum clearly struggles to manage his frustration and anger, which leads to him losing control. Although Callum hasn’t hit Ava, or any of the family, it appears – however unwittingly – that he’s following in his father’s footsteps.
In one of the film’s best scenes, there’s a standoff between Callum and Ali. Ali stands up for Ava, challenging Callum’s behaviour but he does so in a non-threatening way. He recognises that he is the adult in this situation, that Callum is effectively a child, a child struggling to manage a range of challenging emotions (that he’s simply not equipped to deal with). Callum is scared, grieving, angry and frustrated, but Ali implicitly understands that further anger will not help the situation. Instead, he makes it clear that Callum is out of line, but he asserts himself with a firmness that doesn’t involve shouting or physical aggression – the exact opposite of how Paul would behave. Thus the situation is defused without violence, but Callum doesn’t know how to process what’s happening and leaves out of frustration.
In this scene, all three actors are tremendous, but Shaun Thomas deserves special praise for humanising such a complex, conflicted character. Arguably, a significant part of that credit is also due to his director’s ability to coax such an accomplished performance, from such a young actor. Thomas clearly has a bright future and is one to watch.
Conclusion: Ali & Ava is a triumph of British cinema because it doesn’t just give us stereotypes, it doesn’t just give us tired tropes. It shows us the lives of authentic, multicultural Britains. It shows us people that are angry, grieving and scared, but more importantly, it demonstrates how empathy, compassion and love can triumph over those challenging emotions. Clio Barnard continues to prove herself to be a thoughtful and accomplished filmmaker.
- Ali & Ava (Barnard, 2021) was screened as part of the Toronto film festival with a release date to be announced.
If you or somebody you know has been affected by issues relating to domestic abuse, please visit the Refuge website to learn about what support is available or call their freephone, 24-hour helpline on 0808 2000 247.
Further info: https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/
If you or somebody you know has been affected by issues relating to racism, the charity Mind might be able to help. Please visit the Mind website to learn more.
- Language Lessons | platonic Rom-Com excels in chemistry - October 10, 2021
- Sediments | a glimpse of the experiences faced by trans women - October 9, 2021
- Mark Cousins | The Storms of Jeremy Thomas - October 8, 2021