Clio Barnard’s 2010 debut film The Arbor, a documentary/fiction hybrid based on the play by acclaimed writer Andrea Dunbar, features a fascinating formal gambit in which actors lip-synced to actual archival recordings of Dunbar and her daughter, Lorraine. Barnard’s subsequent films, 2013’s The Selfish Giant and now Ali & Ava, don’t have the same bold, meta-textual hook, but are nonetheless informed by Barnard’s insistence on infusing her work with the hard realities of real people. The Arbor, both play and film, is set in Bradford, an industrial city in Northern England; Ali & Ava takes place in the same city, and both main characters are based on actual people whom Barnard met while working on other projects and whom she subsequently invited to collaborate on a screenplay with her. The resulting film never pretends to be a documentary, but is shot with a sense of hardscrabble authenticity. Despite the ample hardships on display, Ali & Ava never succumbs to kitchen-sink blandness or poverty porn, creating instead a multifaceted portrait of both a specific place and the two damaged people still hoping and grasping for a connection.
Beyond Barnard’s deft touch with issues of class and race appear her underlying sensitivities at portraying the halting, tentative steps towards romance between two people of a certain age. There aren’t many movies about middle-aged romance, and even fewer that aren’t Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasies à la Nancy Meyers. Here, Claire Rushbrook plays Ava as a whirlwind of maternal energy and limitless patience; she helps out with young children at the local elementary school, and has her hands full at home as well, with her own children of various ages and a grandchild. Ali (the wonderful Adeel Akhtar) is childless, separated from his wife even though they still live together in the same home. He’s an aged DJ always ready with a song to break the ice, as well as a landlord who tools around the neighborhood greeting the largely working class immigrants who make up the area. The two meet after school one day, as Ali is driving some kids home and offers Ava a lift as well. Barnard fills out this straightforward scenario with all manner of environmental detail, always emphasizing that these people are part of a larger community and at the mercy of its prejudices and vicissitudes. Ava’s grown son Callum (Shaun Thomas, from The Selfish Giant), who still lives at home with his baby, has a racist streak and a violent temper to match, both courtesy of his birth father. Ali’s estranged wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) is another impediment, although it’s never made clear exactly what has driven the couple apart. These conflicts make up the bulk of what could be called the film’s plot, but much of the film is content to simply observe this community at large. Barnard and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland fill the frame with ample kinetic movement, almost always blocking scenes such that there are multiple bodies in sight at once (there’s virtually no traditional shot-counter-shot or singles here). Ali & Ava also has what might be the year’s best soundtrack, a sonic tapestry of Irish folk music, classical compositions, hip-hop, and choice cuts from The Buzzcocks and The Specials; truly, Barnard understands how people bond over and communicate through music. Inevitably, outside forces begin to drive our intrepid couple apart. But Barnard ends her film with a profoundly hopeful grace note, not so much a happy ending but a subtle acknowledgement that happiness is worth fighting for. This is a beautiful film.
Published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 6.