Ali & Ava: a relatively discreet romance | 25YL

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While falling in love is as important and personally defining a milestone as any, it’s surprising how few films take the process seriously as a central narrative, compared to coming-of-age films. ‘adulthood. Romance can often be considered a genre, but pure examples are shockingly rare in contemporary cinema, usually paired with obligatory comic book or genre elements. Even here, Ali and Ava combines its romantic drama with the hard-hitting style of social realism that director Clio Barnard is famous for. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best romances of recent times are all Queer-focused, with the complexity of falling in love contrary to social convention seen as enough of a hook to keep audiences engaged, despite the fact that the Straight guys need realistic, serious on-screen romances, too.

Ali and Ava sets out to exploit this market gap with a romance following two working-class people finding love after the unrelated breakups of their respective marriages. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is the rarest thing, a lovable owner, whose good, cautious nature positively influences those around him, including Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a schoolteacher and new grandmother who slowly puts her life up in the wake of her violent ex-husband’s death.

The film operates in a number of different arenas, mixing its romance with themes of social pressure, culture shock, class difference, racism, trauma, and the complexity of explaining to its children the darkness that resided at their father’s. Ava’s adult son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), is unaware that his father was abusive and still admires him after his death, reacting with irrational anger to any threats to his memory. Meanwhile, Ali is still technically married to his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia). Knowing that their families would despise them for filing for divorce, and on her in particular, he keeps their separation a secret, much to her frustration, as she is eager to start dating openly again.

A film dealing with so many different, often harsh subjects, could get quite unbalanced, especially with such a reasonable length, but Ali and Ava does a good job of not forcing these issues into cliched conflicts, with them largely existing as the thoughts populating the protagonists’ conflicting heads. All in all, they find respite from these issues, but their relationship also brings them to a head, forcing them to face the pain they had previously ignored. Their common outlet, and the one that brings them together despite their very different tastes, is the music, which allows Barnard to inject much-needed life, energy and color into the film, the terrific soundtrack the making it much more aesthetically appealing than it so easily could have been.

The entire cast gives strong performances, and the film manages to avoid feeling overwhelmed or overloaded by so many themes, but rather sacrifices a certain level of interest in doing so. Barnard undeniably has a strong penchant for dialogue that feels natural and the cast can deliver it organically, but the writing can feel a bit pedestrian overall, lacking a real sense of drive, intensity or eloquence. Many of the ideas and conflicts he explores are quite familiar, and he doesn’t exactly give them a radical new perspective, or present them in a way that feels particularly inspired. The draw is how understated and realistic it all feels, and in that regard, there were a few moments that didn’t quite form the seal. Yet it is another very human and heartfelt work by Barnard, played with great honesty and heart. It’s refreshing to see two such normal characters carry on a romance, and it’s nice to see them both become more attractive as they get closer and happier.

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