Ali & Ava is a lovely, charming surprise. It’s the latest drama written and directed by Clio Barnard, who’s received much international acclaim for her powerful, often shatteringly bleak films set in Yorkshire, in northern England. These earlier works — including The Arboroa boldly experimental portrait of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, and The Selfish Gianta tale of childhood friendship — are all tragedies of a kind, marked by poverty, bigotry, addiction and abuse.
Some of those elements appear in Ali & Ava, which takes place in Bradford, a city in West Yorkshire, and follows two people who’ve seen their share of hardships. Ali, played by Adeel Akhtar, is a Pakistani immigrant who experiences plenty of day-to-day racism, often from white children who like to throw rocks at his car. Ava, played by Claire Rushbrook, is an Irish-born woman with four children and several grandchildren, plus a history of physical and emotional abuse by her recently deceased husband.
But despite all this, the vibe of the movie is sunny and upbeat. And I do mean upbeat: The first time we meet Ali, he’s standing on top of his car, dancing and listening to high-energy music on his headphones. Music is a huge part of his life; he’s a DJ in his spare time, though he earns his living as a landlord. He’s beloved by his tenants, many of whom are also immigrants and treat him like family. Each day he drives one tenant’s young daughter, Sofia, to school — which is how he crosses paths with Ava, who works as an assistant in Sofia’s classroom.
Their first meeting — it’s a rainy day, and Ali offers Ava a ride home — isn’t exactly love at first sight. But they’re both so warm, friendly and open to new experiences that it’s no surprise when romantic sparks eventually start to fly. Soon they’re visiting each other’s homes and listening to each other’s music — Ava loves folk and country, while Ali tries to turn her on to rap and electronica.
There are complications. Ali is married, though he and his wife are about to separate. She’s looking to move out soon, but Ali still holds out hope for a reconciliation. He’s also embarrassed about breaking the news to his tradition-minded relatives, who live close by.
Ava is constantly surrounded by her family as well; her children are always dropping in on her, usually so she can babysit her grandkids. Despite their obvious cultural differences, both Ali and Ava are the emotional glue holding their families together. Still, those differences do have a way of flaring into the open, mainly when Ava’s racist son, Callum, played by Shaun Thomas, catches the two of them hanging out and listening to music, and chases Ali away with a sword.
There’s a lot of small-minded prejudice for Ali and Ava to deal with. Both have busy, messy lives, something Barnard suggests with restless handheld camerawork and convulsive editing. What makes the movie so affecting is the sense that, despite all this imperfection, Ali and Ava have somehow found each other at an improbably perfect moment.
The two leads are superb: Akhtar plays Ali like something of an overgrown child; he’s a lot to take, but he has an irresistibly shaggy charm. And Rushbrook is simply stellar. As the selfless, good-natured Ava, she often flashes a smile you could warm your hands over, though she also shows you the piercing loneliness behind that smile.
While there are tender scenes of connection in Ali & Ava — especially when the two enjoy a quick getaway by train — there are few grandly romantic speeches or gestures. Barnard maintains her tough, realistic approach even as she guides this love story to its hopeful conclusion. Movies so rarely show us something as wonderfully, believably ordinary as Ali and Ava’s love — which is precisely why it feels so extraordinary.