Ali & Ava (2021)
Director: Clio Barnard
Screenwriter: Clio Barnard
Starring: Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rushbrook, Ellora Torchia, Shaun Thomas, Natalie Gavin
The latest film from one-woman Northern Powerhouse Clio Barnard, following performative documentary The Arbor, urban fable The Selfish Giant and traumatic arable drama Dark River, is a love letter to connection. Like all of Barnard’s work to date, Ali & Ava is also unmistakably rooted in the experiences of real people in a particular place, namely the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire.
In a story inspired by the lives of two real people and coloured by the experiences of countless others, landlord and DJ Ali (Adeel Akhtar, Four Lions) is going through a rough separation from his wife while trying to juggle jobs and keep the collapse of his marriage a secret from his family. By chance, and thanks to a torrential downpour typical of the northern England weather cycle, he meets widowed classroom support assistant Ava (Claire Rushbrook, Secrets & Lies) and they begin a tentative, soon passionate relationship, much to the objection of both their communities.
What’s commendable about Barnard’s portrayal of intersecting cultures in Bradford is that she doesn’t go straight for the seemingly inevitable violent conflict angle. While she could be compared to filmmakers like Shane Meadows for her gritty and grounded representation of working-class areas of the UK, this is not This Is England. There are tensions and references to the National Front’s activities in the city in the past and present (including an explicit nod to the 2001 race riots), but this is not a bleak kitchen sink drama film for the sake of it. This is a film about hope, uncertain hope, but hope all the same.
The tensions acting on their relationship blossoming are chiefly represented by Ava’s son Callum (The Selfish Giant’s Shaun Thomas) who misses having a dad around but doesn’t have the full picture of who his dad really was. Callum has just become a young father himself and is often found stopping over with his mum for support, then Ali enters the picture and upsets the family dynamic, making Callum’s ignorant protective instincts go into overdrive. In one of the film’s finest fun-to-fraught scenes, Ali and Ava make their first profound and intimate (but pretty innocent really) connection sharing and listening to each other’s eclectic, clashing music tastes in complete rapture on the sofa until Callum comes home suddenly and immediately threatens Ali with a sword he happens to own, prompting Ali to nervously dub him “Zorro”.
If there’s one thing Barnard excels at even more than bringing ethereal beauty to potentially grim urban landscapes, it’s flawless casting; casting that comes from spending time in the places her stories take place in and looking for the most honest stand-ins for the real people she and her team meet. Akhtar and Rushbrook’s performances are winningly warm and natural, the perfect core to build a compelling human drama around, with Shaun Thomas and Ellora Torchia (In the Earth) as Ava’s caring daughter Runa leaving the most lasting impression out of the mostly locally sourced supporting cast.
Though it is emotional and a lot of it hits hard this is still by some margin Barnard’s funniest and most feel-good film to date. There are plenty of good-natured local in-jokes for any born-and-bred Bradfordians watching, gentle ribbing of the reputations of particular “rougher” areas of the city and self-deprecating humour throughout. Barnard never feels like she paints with too broad a stroke and always ensures to draws upon reality in her stories, really getting to know those who live in the districts she sets her stories in – Andrea Dunbar’s home of Buttershaw in The Arbor, Odsal and Wibsey for The Selfish Giant and Holme Wood for Ali & Ava.
The use of music as a way people connect to their feelings and to each other is the most dominant theme here. We first meet Ali dancing to one of his DJ mixes on the roof of his car in the misty small hours of the morning, his body driven into a trance-meditative state as he psyches himself up for the day ahead. Between caring for her own family and the school children she supports, Ava rarely seems to get the opportunity to cut loose and truly be herself, but you do get a genuine beaming smile when she belts out a rousing song at the local Irish club with her family. Ali and Ava are from completely different cultural backgrounds – British-Pakistani and Irish-Catholic respectively – but similar social backgrounds, and there isn’t a insignificant age gap, with Adeel Akhtar and presumably his character being around a decade younger than Claire Rushbrook’s Ava. If you were being hyper-critical you might ask for a chance to actually see Ali DJ-ing and putting all of his passionate meticulous musical archiving and preparation to the test (maybe in one of Bradford’s more “characterful” clubs), and for some of Ava’s hobbies to shine through beyond going to the social club.
Bradford is the 6th largest city in England by area and the 7th by population, and while it is an incredibly diverse and artistically vibrant place (it is not only still considered the curry capital of Britain but was the world’s first UNESCO City of Film) it has more than its fair share of social problems with issues of poverty and deprivation, not to mention its own residents voting it as the 4th worst place to live in England in 2021. These issues aren’t the focus of the film, but they do add much-needed texture and layers of believability.
The story of Ali & Ava, merely a snapshot of two lived experiences, is not tied up too neatly by the end, because how could it be? This pair meet each other at a time of great change in both of their lives, and these lives continue to an unknown but hopefully more bright than bleak future after the film’s end. Ali & Ava might not be as magical as The Selfish Giant or as much of a gut punch as Dark River, but it is a beautiful, honest love story and ode to a city and a people much-maligned but with so much to offer those who would give them a chance.