Ali (Adeel Akhtar) smiles his way through a troubled marriage. With good humour and loud music, he focuses on doing for others, including his tenants, with whom he has a remarkably amicable relationship. In fact, he’s picking up one of his tenants’ kids from from school when he meets Ava, an Irish teacher at the school. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a single mother of 5 (most of them grown, though not necessarily gone), and Ali offers her a ride. She’s tired but she smiles easily, and before they’re much down the road the pair are already bonding over their mutual love of music (though notably not the same music).
Writer-director Clio Barnard may refer to this as a working-class love story, but I’m fairly certain its protagonists would not. They are simply drawn to each other, irrepressibly so, despite their differing backgrounds and statuses and skin colour. They’re both living through tumultuous times and though it’s safe to say neither was looking for a romance, they are both open to finding joy in unexpected places. Not everyone is so open; Ava’s grown son is less than pleased to find a British Pakistani man cuddling his mam on the couch. He brandishes a sword and runs him straight out. So while the initial attraction may have been based on the need for fun and distraction, they quickly come across some pretty serious barriers and have to wonder whether all of this is worth it.
Barnard has drawn some exceptionally authentic characters, brought to life by a very talented pair of actors. Akhtar and Rushbrook live in these skins, they feel like your neighbours, you know them somehow, and you like them even as they falter. The complexity of their relationship allows for a whole spectrum of emotion, but Barnard applies it with a light touch, her actors keeping their performances as subtle as they are precise. There’s a lot to unpack here: grief, trauma, hate, disappointment, but through it all, there’s a buoyancy that keeps lighting their path. There is hope in vulnerability, and strength in pursuing unlikely connections.
Ali & Ava is an official selection of TIFF 2021.