Clio Barnard is quietly establishing herself as the best British director right now – comparisons with Ken Loach are obvious due to her ability to tackle social realism, but Barnard is able to find optimism and hope in the every day in her most uplifting film yet, a romantic 90-odd minute endeavour Ali + Ava, about a recently separated landlord named Ali finding love with a teacher’s assistant, Ava – who is raising multiple adult offspring who have children and lives of their own.
Impeccably portrayed by both Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, Barnard is able to find instant chemistry between the two, developing world-weary protagonists cut from a different cloth. Its characters’ relationship is mature at every turn, never resorting to forced contrivances to create drama, everything at the heart of this movie feels honest, a social commentary as much as it is a romance – taking place in the middle of the working-class city of Bradford, both Akhtar and Rushbrook’s characters, Ali and Ava, meet through a child at Ava’s school, who Ali regularly gives lifts for as he is the landlord for her parents, a British Pakistani to Ava’s Irish background, regularly fixing up problems at their home. His humour and charm is irresistible to both Ava and the audience, and we constantly want them to succeed against all odds despite the struggles that both are facing – Ava’s son is developing the National Front racist views of his deceased father, even wearing the same boots that he used to hit Ava with – and Ali’s family think he’s still happily married and the loss of his son hasn’t affected their relationship at all.
The soundtrack and clash of musical cultures in Ali & Ava is one of its biggest strengths. Ali listens to rap, Slyvan Esso and Buzzcocks, leads sing-alongs with kids during a drive home. Ava is more likely to sing along to country music at a bar – and her second favourite genre is folk – Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton are regularly on the playlist. Being Irish, her name suggestions for her latest grandchild all include Irish names – something that the British-raised couple instantly disapprove of. The humour and warm when these characters come together is where Ali & Ava finds strength in the everyday, despite its moments of harsh reality the tender character beats are where it feels most alive, eventually rewarding with a deeply satisfying ending.
Unexpected human friendship and later romance is developed with honesty and charm. Both Ali and Ava have clearly developed strengths and weaknesses – they feel completely real, and they have to in order for the film to work. The infectious energy that Ali brings to the table is enough to win over the harshest of doubters – think a Ted Lasso-type character for a recent comparison if he came from Bradford as opposed to America.
The sound editing from Rashad Hall-Heinz plays centre stage here and really demonstrates just how important sound is in getting films to work like they do. Music moments where the pair are listening to songs through their headphones on a makeshift couch is illustrated beautifully, as is the cut between the opening title cards and Ali pouring his heart out through dance on the roof of a car in a foggy, empty field. Emotion and humour are Ali & Ava’s greatest strengths – and as it works, so too does everything else – a real contender for film of the year here – or at least, the film of next year, as it doesn’t come out theatrically in the UK until 2022 but should not be ignored as it’s a highlight to the sheer amount of excellent British dramas that we’ve had recently – joining the likes of Perfect 10, Make Up, Lynn + Lucy & County Lines as brilliant masterpieces in the new canon.