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Opposites Attract

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TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
Ali & Ava (2021)

Without putting too fine a point on it, there is no greater signifier of mental illness in the United Kingdom than deliberately “making a show of yourself,” i.e., publicly acting in a way that might draw attention. Yet the most shocking sequence in this improbable British romance between two 50somethings does exactly this. On a busy train, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is playing his ukulele and singing to Ava (Claire Rushbrook), who is blushing with happiness. These are people from a place who would have learned not to make a show of themselves in the cradle. As a piece of rule-breaking it’s off the charts. So it’s hard to tell which is more shocking: that Ali does it, that Ava is charmed instead of mortified or that the other passengers don’t tut themselves to death.

The opinions of others and how they must be ignored are the main problem facing their romance, and writer-director Clio Barnard does an excellent job of laying out the rules their romance breaks. Ali works for his family’s property business in Bradford, a famously multiethnic but economically deprived city, as a handyman. Some of their tenants have a small daughter, Sofia (Ariana Bodorova), who is having such a hard time in school that Ava is her personal classroom assistant. (How the school still has the budget for 1:1 classroom assistants in our current age of austerity isn’t discussed.) Ava has lived in the same tough area of Bradford her whole life, knows all the kids who throw rocks at the cars by name, and is heavily involved in raising her son Callum’s (Shaun Thomas) infant daughter. One rainy afternoon Ali is dispatched to pick up Sofia from school and ends up giving Ava a lift too. They chat about music and joke together, and one thing might well lead to another, except that when Callum sees Ali in the house he immediately fetches his sword and threatens to kill him.

It transpires Callum’s late dad was a racist skinhead who Ava remained entangled with for decades despite not only his extreme physical violence but also her mixed-race daughter Michelle (Mona Goodwin). But the movie works hard to emphasize Ava’s personal strength and kindness, meaning her bad taste in men, her resulting life choices and how that affected her children are glossed over. This makes Ali’s indiscretions and problems with his own overbearing family, who live next door to him, absolutely pale in comparison. Shots of Ali stimming in his music room (he used to be a D.J., and still writes music on his decks) intercut with Sofia acting out in class make his issues explicit. But it seems rather as if Ms. Barnard is equating Ava’s history of abuse with Ali’s mental health struggles, and that is a breathtaking choice.

Ms. Barnard’s earlier, excellent film “The Selfish Giant” was about teenage boys, one of whom was played by Mr. Thomas, desperate to make things easier for their mothers in a world without positive male role models. Ms. Rushbrook’s breakout role was as Brenda Blethyn’s sulky street-cleaning daughter in “Secrets & Lies,” another British movie that also glossed over its major issues of race, personal identity and white people’s passive complicity in racism in favor of a heartwarming ending. But that came out 25 years ago and the conversation hasn’t moved on; it might even have gone backwards. The mere fact of Ali and Ava’s obvious chemistry and their mutual non-English backgrounds – hers is explored in depth; his isn’t – is not enough to overlook Ava’s appalling history. Ali’s neediness and immaturity don’t prevent him from asking tough questions, but Ms. Barnard cuts the sound or the shot when Ava answers. That unpleasant directorial choice to wrap silence around what Ava’s experiences mean for Ali’s happiness makes the movie complicit in her shocking attitudes.

What isn’t unpleasant is the use of music as a tool for exploring character, like when Ali starts listening to the folk singers Ava likes, or when he calms the rock-throwing kids by blasting rap from the car stereo. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s elegant cinematography makes the run-down setting and dreary weather almost magnificent. And it’s possible there were differences of opinion about the movie’s point: when Ava argues with a petulant Callum at the barbecue, though we cannot hear their conversation, the shot is angled so that the bonfire frames them like the fires of hell. If you put your children in harm’s way, aren’t flames the least you deserve? And doesn’t the sweet, damaged Ali deserve to sing a better song?

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