2. Ali & Ava (2021)
An Asian DJ and a White school assistant find an unexpected connection and begin an at first tentative then passionate relationship as both struggle with massive changes in their lives.
Ali & Ava is not the tough kitchen sink drama you might expect from the setting and subject matter. It’s not always “grim up north” and Barnard doesn’t use poverty or prejudice for sensationalist effect, though both are present in this story just as they are in reality.
Ali’s family don’t object to his new relationship because he has grown apart from them and no longer confides in them, whereas Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas) – who she has raised alone and who himself has a new baby to care for – is overprotective of his mum and ignorant about other communities. The question of what he will resort to in reaction to Ali’s presence in his mum’s life provides the film’s most effective tension, but not its core.
This is a joyous experience overall, with music washing over you and hope springing forth unabated as the title characters (given warm-blooded life by tender performances from Adeel Akhbar and Sian Rushbrook) find a kindred spiritual connection.
1. The Selfish Giant (2013)
Two best friends from poor families spend their days gathering scrap metal to sell in order to save enough money to improve their lot in life.
Barnard’s working methods are so clearly displayed in the end result of this film. Only through gradual, unforced development within communities over time could she have summoned such effortlessly natural performances from child actors Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. Their unbreakable bond, despite arguments major and minor, is the very soul of this story.
There were, and still are, a lot of kids like Arbor and Swifty wandering streets and taking what they can to survive. Absent parents, fractured families and uncertain futures are their daily reality. Barnard isn’t passing judgement on these lives, merely presenting them as they actually are.
This is Barnard’s Dickensian fable, complete with its own Fagin manipulating orphans of circumstance (that aspect Barnard does harshly judge). Fables and folk tales teach us, children especially, about the way the world works and how we should treat each other. The Selfish Giant certainly meets that aim and lingers on with you like something that has been told and retold for generations, undoubtedly Clio Barnard’s universally themed masterpiece.
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Would you consider Clio Barnard’s filmmaking to be among the most important to come from the UK in recent times? Which of this director’s work would you consider to be her best? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more informative movie lists.