To see yourself in a film is one of cinema’s purest joys. For me, Ali & Ava exists in the area just beneath that: presenting something I know, even if it’s not my exact reality. Clio Barnard’s (writer and director) musically inflected portrait of a burgeoning relationship between two working class people in Bradford, England gets to the core of universality (evoking humanity) by focusing on real specificity. It is a work of effortless verisimilitude, carrying the director’s trademark poeticism (most clear in her fabulous 2013 film, The Selfish Giant, a real highlight of contemporary British film). What we see is enhanced through filmic language — gentle lighting, precise visual storytelling, the skilful deployment of the established grammar of independent filmmaking — but what we see only ever feels like life. This is humanity projected onto a screen and reflecting back at us, just what film was made to present.
I’m not a working class citizen of Bradford, I never have been. The eponymous Ava (Claire Rushbrook) works as a Classroom Assistant in a Bradford primary school; I once applied for a job as a Classroom Assistant in a Bradford primary school (I didn’t get it, I ended up as a Teaching Assistant at a college in Wakefield, if you must know). For me, this was a precursor to teacher training, a step in a ladder. For Ava, this is a purpose. She’s a mother to grown children, a grandmother too. She’s looked after children for most of her life, so why not get paid for it, she says. She reminds me of my family: she’s from a Yorkshire family of Irish descent, as am I (on my dad’s side, at least). She reminds me of my family that have worked in education in Yorkshire, not in Bradford but very close. Some of them living in the same kind of houses I see in this film, with the same kind of views and, most importantly, with the same kind of atmosphere. The feel of the place here is perfect, as Barnard and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (who also shot Bradford in Barnard’s debut, the form bending documentary The Arbor (2010), another excellent film), capture the soul of the surroundings, encapsulating the community and the spirit, not just the geography. When Ali (Adeel Akhtar) exclaims that he loves this city, a proclamation we usually associate with bustling metropolises and the filmic template of the city we are used to, we believe it. We feel it.
A more distanced viewer, one far from Bradford, may not quite realise how perfect the evocation is. But, the whole production is so finely tuned that I can’t imagine this not resonating sheer humanity to any viewer. For me, I don’t just recognise humanity, I see people I know. Ali reminds me of my uncle who passed away last year: a fixture of the community with an imperfect life but a spirit of true generosity that lives on past him. They grow them like that in Yorkshire. The people in Ali & Ava are not defined by their livelihoods but through their actions, by the way they come to life on screen. Yes, Ava is a Classroom Assistant and Ali a landlord, but that’s background detail, an incidental fact in a wider life. Through this, Ali & Ava is able to be a wider social portrait: clearly a story about Bradford, its history and its present. The narrative here is built on the fragile foundations of the past, we focus on a clear romantic arc (between, you guessed it, Ali and Ava), but that arc is made interesting by what it is constructed on. In the backdrop we have struggles and pasts that characters barely made it through. Bradford’s history with the National Front is heavily alluded to: Bradford is a very culturally diverse city, a fact that has uncomfortably lived alongside a history of racism, especially in the ’70s (which were marked by hateful demonstrations and attacks). Ava’s ex-husband was in the National Front; Ali is British Asian. Ava’s son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), idolised his father. His outlook is implied by his actions and his reaction to Ali, and the burgeoning relationship with his mother, is a source of clear conflict.
But that isn’t the film, it is just a part of it. This work is cognisant of a complex social history that underpins our contemporary reality, but it is focused on the present instead. Our main characters are defined by having a limiting foot in the past, represented through their relationships to other characters, but this is more used as a way of adding depth to their relationship arc than as the film’s major drama. First and foremost, this is a film about people, about both Ali and Ava, and it bends around them. They are stunning characters, Ali especially. Adeel Akhtar’s performance is astonishing, forging an original human on screen with a discernible and unique personality. He is a man that is constantly on the go, he can’t stay still but is also plagued by insecurities and his vibrant, communal spirit is built upon a real sadness. The film doesn’t like to just tell us things, outside of when it has to, and it is so good at presenting. We learn very soon that his homelife is difficult. He lives with Runa (Ellora Torchia) and they have clearly recently separated, but that has not be conveyed to his family (who live next door). The specifics around all of this are made clear over the course of the film, when they need to be. As mentioned, the film’s narrative follows the characters, they don’t follow it.
The definition of both Ali and Ava is exceptional. They are mesmerising on screen, phrases like ‘chemistry’ seem overplayed and clichéd, but perfectly fit the dynamic. This pairing works, both actors able to perfectly convey imperfect humans in all their messy glory. The characters that support the pair are not as strong, not as defined. They exist as a convincing but functional background to define the pair. Callum and Runa are occasionally slight issues: Callum’s complexities outweigh his presence in the story and Runa seems to be far too young, in a way that distracts from the core romance. Other characters float in and out, and they seem more sharply symbolic of wider features (more obviously filmic construction). A few too many side streets are opened up and, at points, the film pushes a touch too closely to melodrama. There are moments of coincidence that exist to create drama; these moments wouldn’t stand out in a more conventional film but in the raw reality of Ali & Ava the visible hand of the storyteller cuts against what makes the rest of the film so special.
It is so special because of its elliptical approach. So much of it is understated, and a lot of it purely reliant on music. There’s a musical backbone to this film, in which the songs (and soundscapes) are core to the narrative. A usage of a Bob Dylan song elevates a moment that threatens to be too contrived due to how perfectly this tune has been threaded through the earlier stages of the movie. But music is also key to the relationship, functioning as the narrative shorthand for an opposites attract dynamic. Both characters love music, it speaks to their core, and it speaks to us. They just love different music. The notes that demarcate the growth of this relationship are musical notes, made spellbinding by exceptional editing. The film juggles multiple sound cues, cutting between what one character is hearing, then to the other, then to the external view (both characters use headphones) and somehow making it work. Ali used to be a DJ, Barnard feels like a DJ here, and a skilled one. It is not just the deployment of a perfect track, the now slightly tired concept of the needle drop, it is the synthesising of something new through how music is mixed together, and how it is used in the diegesis. There are transcendent moments, truly transcendent, marked by music but the music only works because of how core it is to our understanding of characters.
Ali & Ava already feels like one of those critical darling works bound to not find traction with a wider audience. A portrait of pre-middle aged love in Bradford, England, one that deals with themes of domestic abuse and racism (the domestic abuse theme is mostly well handled, but perhaps oversteps towards the end), can be an off-putting description. But what is in the film is not what a film is. This is a film about how easy it is to get into situations, to climb up, but how climbing down is more important. Getting to peril is no problem, pulling away from it is the vital part (this is beautifully shown through a visual metaphor in the film). It is a film about music, laughter and connection. The writing, supplemented by improvisation, is astonishingly sharp, never just existing in one register. Your eyes won’t be dry, but that will be as much from laughter as it is from sadness. In fact, I laughed harder at this film in one sequence than I have at any comedy in recent memory. And this was from a well timed joke in a scene of clear peril. It’s indicative of the perfect balancing act this film pulls off. At no point does it duck away from messiness, conflict, ugliness and drama; it just doesn’t let it be defined by it. Life is as much about the laughter as it is about the pain, and these parts come sporadically. That familiar rhythm, that’s the rhythm of Ali & Ava.