Movie review: Ali & Ava

(courtesy IMP Awards)

In general, movies have an abiding loud of love wrought in big, loud, bold movements, all meet-cutes and happenstance and colour and joy in letters that stretch to the candy-coloured heavens in neon-lit tones befitting something that is, most people would agree, WONDERFUL.

And yes, while, falling in love and finding that special someone is rather delightful in just about every way, the truth is that love in the real world, and despite what rom-coms might suggest, it does occur there and can be rather fetching even with all that reality stuck to it, often finds its welcome form in ways that are quiet and stuttering, eager but uncertain, hopeful but all too mindful that really good things like love, despite what Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson maintain, aren’t always free.

Two people who know that life comes with few, if any free passes, and doesn’t always deliver on the verdant dreams of youth are Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and Ava (Claire Rushbrook), the eponymous protagonists of Ali & Ava, a film written and directed by Clio Barnard, who find themselves coming into unexpected contact one day when garrulous Ali, all chat, warmth and brio picks up Sofia (Ariana Bodorova), the daughter of his tenants and friends, from the school at which Ava works as a classroom assistant.

Theirs is tentative meeting, one coloured in tone and effect by respective personal trauma, one relatively in the past (Ava) and one achingly fresh and raw (Ali) with both vulnerably hopeful people – it’s buried and fights to be unearthed but it is there – wanting something more from life but wholly uncertain what that might even look like and if they even have the heart to pursue it.

In common with the perfectly-judged and emotionally nuanced sensibility of the rest of the film, this first meeting does not look all that life-changing or impactful, steeped as in the natural reticence of both Ali and Ava to disturb the fragile parameters of their lives as they stand.

While Ava seems to have a happy life, her Irish Catholic household transplanted to England as happily dysfunctional as they come – in the way of the best families, they love each other but don’t always see eye-to-eye nor they address all the festering issues bedevilling them – and her job is a natural fit for a woman who loves nurturing children, it also balances on some unexploded familial bombs such as her son Callum’s (Shaun Thomas) inability to properly process the death a year earlier of his abusive dad nor the truth about him (complicated by the fact that the dad only ever abused Ava who worked hard to shield her two youngest kids from the worst of it).

Similarly while Ali, who has a naturally charming way with everyone which appears capable of defusing all kinds of tense situations, seems to be the life of his sprawling, loving extended family while also being well-loved by his friends and tenants, is struggling with his separation from his wife Runa (Ella Torchia) which is being kept a secret from everyone he knows.

While their circumstances are different in so far as Ava is grappling with fashioning a life free from past abuse while Ali’s trauma is very much in the here and now, Barnard beautifully brings out the commonality of life experience they share and how they have both ended up if not alone, then lonely, emotional islands whom everyone assures must not have known an emotionally lost day in their lives.

But appearances can be deceiving and one of the most richly illuminating parts of Ali & Ava is that it allows time for us to get to know the two main characters well ahead of them meeting up so we fully understand why this meeting matters so much.

True, the initial impact may not look that seismic if you take it on appearances alone, but because we know what Ali and Ava are dealing with apart, their coming together, which is irresistibly swift when it happens, full of the kind of light and happiness of finding an emotional home after being lost in the wilderness, makes beautiful empathetic sense.

They may not know it on that rainy day that Ali gives Ava a lift home from school but we do, and watching their subsequent joy at finding each other, and understanding what it is they have found, fills Ali & Ava with an emotionally richness that does the soul good.

It also movingly reassures us that love can find you even in the bleakest of circumstances.

It’s an idea we all like to hold fast to, evidenced by the popularity of the aforementioned rom-com genre, but the grim reality is that life rarely lets Cupid do his thing unimpeded and often seems to go out of its way to throw considerable roadblocks on the way to true love, assuming you find the route at all.

There is considerable reason for Ali and Ava to doubt they will ever find anything approaching love again given how the course taken by their previous relationships, but little by little and meeting by meeting, all of them punctuated to one degree or another by music which is a powerful motif throughout (it underscores their differences but commonality too), that perhaps the mythical second chance is not so fabled after all.

There is quiet thoughtfulness to Ali & Ava that belies a powerfulness of emotion that is always present; it may not shout it from the rooftops nor make its presence known with marching bands and ticker tape, but it is there, it makes an impression that stirs up a joy and an affecting sense of belonging that comes through in ever increasing measure until a final scene that is so astoundingly and yet simply beautiful that you will marvel how so much quiet restraint can contain so much transformative emotion, the kind that feels like a tsunami of possibility but also of coming home.

Ali & Ava is a gem of a film – it is deceptively quiet and nuanced, hiding within the richness of its meditative progress a depth and power of emotion that will floor you and inspire you as the two leading characters who have been beaten down by life, but not completely, discover in each other a place to belong and someone to belong there with, proving that love can exist in even the most beleaguered of circumstances and lift you up in ways that reassure the heart that life is far from being done with you yet.

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