Clio Bernard is not exactly the most prolific of directors. Her last outing, Dark River, was released in 2017 – and we have to go all the way back to 2013 for The Selfish Giant. Her films are essentially evocations of working class life that might, initially, appear slight, but which are cleverly nuanced. Her characters are never allowed to be stereotypes; indeed, at times they are positively surprising.
Ali & Ava sits happily with her former endeavours: gentle, essentially heartwarming – but with hidden depths.
The setting is the multi-cultural hub of Bradford and, when we first meet Ali (Adeel Ahktar), he’s standing on the roof of his car, dancing to the techno-music blasting from his headphones. Ali is an affable fellow, a landlord of sorts,. He’s hyperactive (and probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum) and has a passion for listening to (and making) music. Meanwhile, he collects the various rents he’s owed, looks after his extended family and tries to come to terms with the fact that his wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia), after the death of their first child, has fallen out of love with him and is ready to move on with her life.
He has accepted this, but steadfastly refuses to announce the change to the rest of his family.
Ava (Claire Rushbrook) works as a teaching assistant at the local primary school. After the death of her Irish Catholic husband, she has devoted her life to her children and grandchildren. Her youngest son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), already a father himself, is still mourning the passing of the dad he idolised, even though his parents’ marriage was hardly a blissful union. Indeed, Ava chose to leave her husband because of his regular physical abuse of her.
Inevitably, Ali and Ava fall into each other’s orbits and, as their friendship deepens and blossoms into something more serious, so their lives become ever more difficult. Callum is immediately hostile to Ali, seeing him as an intruder, and it seems that everything the couple attempt together is subject to unsympathetic scrutiny from those around them.
In the midst of this hard-scrabble existence, Barnard manages to conjure moments of real beauty: fireworks blossoming silently above the rooftops of the city; children parading through the streets with coloured lights. There’s a joyful moment where Ali’s boundless enthusiasm manages to turn a potentially nasty situation into an uninhibited dance in the middle of a dodgy estate. Barnard draws intriguing comparisons between Ali in one of his music-fuelled trances and a little girl at the primary school, who is happy to clamber to the top of a climbing frame, but afraid to descend.
Ali & Ava isn’t exactly a blockbuster but, in its quiet, assured way, it’s worthy of attention – and further confirmation that Barnard is a director with a rare talent for realistic drama.