Ali & Ava tells the story of two middle-aged Bradfordians who cement their corners of the world, but are struck with feelings of unappreciation and loneliness. They meet and sparks fly as Ali (Adeel Akhtar) offers Ava (Claire Rushbrook) a car ride home in the rain and he initiates a conversation about music. Clio Barnard herself has loosely termed the film a ‘social-realist musical’, which I feel encapsulates the film’s use of music and its commentary on the role it plays in our day-to-day lives. The sentiment of music being an integral form of communication and bridge for connection with someone, especially in the process of falling in love, is at the heart of the film.
Viewers get a strong sense of this sentiment in a few beautiful key scenes sprinkled across the film – these scenes alone make the film a worthwhile watch. Barnard’s choice to keep the camera handheld for the majority, if not, entirety, of the film, was bold. And partnered with the intimacy of the shots, there was a strong affective quality to the direction, especially in the first act. This intimacy and shakiness, however, coming as a result of the handheld camera, personally lost its charm towards the end of the film, and was even outright sickly at points.
Moving away from the minor criticism, though, I find a great deal to praise about the picture. All the performances are so delicate and beautiful, working so effortlessly with Barnard’s naturalistic script and undoubtedly her directorial hand, too. Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook have incredible chemistry, which lets viewers root for them throughout their trials and tribulations across the story. The ordinary yet extraordinary nature of their lives and love stories is heart-warming to witness – Barnard shows us the beauty in mundanity, be it through music or feelings of love enhancing what is present. The simplicity of the magic of love is something I feel is underrepresented within the genres of romance and drama – but the lack of plasticity and humility within Ali & Ava makes its portrayal of love so palpable.
Going back to the element of music – integral to the film’s story and subtext – I can sense how carefully the songs were selected and written into the script. There’s a plot point in which a Bob Dylan song is sung, which, for a film of its budget, I am awestruck that the rights for it were cleared.
My only remaining complaint with the film is its pacing, however. Even in its 95-minute runtime, despite its charm and wonder, I felt some scenes were stretched marginally longer than necessary. I actually left the screen a bit surprised to learn it was only slightly longer than the hour-and-a-half mark. Nevertheless, Ali & Ava was a sweet and enchanting watch. A novel love story in many ways, and outside of its place as a drama or romance, it works brilliantly as a ‘social-realist musical’.