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TIFF 2021 Review: Ali & Ava – “Satisfyingly sweet while never becoming overly sentimental”

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Image courtesy of TIFF

Films about the working class, while increasing in number, are still not the norm, and romance films even less so.  It’s therefore refreshing to see writer-director Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant, Dark River) bring Ali & Ava to life, a realistic depiction of love in the face of many obstacles.

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a personable and affable man as well as a landlord in the city of Bradford.  He and his family own several properties and he seems friendly with his tenants, even taking one of their daughters, Sofia, to school on occasion and picking her up when needed.  On one such afternoon, with rain pouring down, Ali offers a ride home to Ava (Claire Rushbrook), who is a teaching assistant in Sofia’s class.  The pair instantly click, as they both clearly adore children, and share a love of music, albeit different kinds.  Ali is charming and Ava finds herself laughing and smiling long after they part.

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As their relationship grows, their mutual histories present emotional obstacles to their happiness.  Ali, while separated from is wife, is still living with her, still technically married, but unable to tell his family that they are no longer together. Despite the fact that she has started dating, they try to hide their failed marriage for fear of how his family will react.  This occurs even in the face of his burgeoning romance with Ava, who lives in a part of town that even taxi drivers won’t drive to. Her pain stems from the abuse she suffered at the hand of her husband, who has now passed away.  She also seems to fear that some of this violent tendency may have also been passed to her son Callum (Shaun Thomas) who himself is now a young father, and is also none too happy that Ali has arrived in his mother’s life.

The two navigate the beginnings of this new relationship amongst a backdrop of bigotry, both from family and friends, and also generally within the town.  Both Ali and Ava’s relations make comments about the difference of their skin colour and the stereotypes associated with them.  They’re also at different stages of their lives, Ava with grown-up children, Ali mourning the loss of his wife’s previous miscarriage.  This love story Barnard has written has many different challenges, and complexities but the couple displays true tenderness throughout.

This is generally due to the chemistry between Akhtar and Rushbrook.  As Ali, Akhtar is very charismatic, even if his character’s actions are slightly manic in reaction to his life’s loss.  Rushbrook balances him out perfectly, expressing true joy on Ava’s face whenever Ali is near.  It’s hard not to root for this couple to overcome all the obstacles they face as their connection is so undeniable and demonstrates such incredible warmth and mutual respect.

Clio Barnard manages to keep this love story feeling unique, even if its main road has been travelled before.  In fact, this love story may be more similar to the everyday than to what we normally see on film, and that authenticity helps to keep Ali & Ava feel satisfyingly sweet while never becoming overly sentimental.  Ali & Ava is a testament to acceptance and the ability to start over, no matter what stage of life you’re in.

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