DIRECTOR: Clio Barnard

CAST: Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rushbrook, Ellora Torchia, Shaun Thomas, Natalie Gavin, Mona Goodwin

RUNNING TIME: 95 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: Two lonely souls (Akhtar and Rushbrook) develop a strong bond with each other…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Much has been said about the comfortable familiarity of romantic-comedies recently, but what of romantic dramas? A lot more emphasis is placed on the romance in these films, and so we are asked to take some of the regular conventions more seriously than in something like, say, Love Actually or as recently as Marry Me and I Want You Back. Again, just as in the lighter examples, sometimes you just need a compelling pair of lovers to focus on for a good hour-and-a-half and the drama should write itself, and luckily Ali & Ava features two strong central characters to help carry the viewer some of its more recognisable traits.

Set within the suburbs of Bradford, Yorkshire, we meet our two titular leads who live very different, but also rather similar, lives; Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a British South Asian landlord who oversees a number of tenants living in the houses his family owns, and is also an enthusiast for blaring techno music having previously served as a club DJ, while Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a middle-aged classroom assistant with a number of kids and grandchildren to her name. Both, however, are lonely and yearning for connection, with Ali lamenting the separation from his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) whom he still loves despite a recent tragedy between the two, and Ava and her family, especially her volatile son Callum (Shaun Thomas), dealing with the fallout of her latest partner’s passing. It comes as a surprise to both, therefore, when they form a connection after Ali gives Ava, who looks after a child of one of Ali’s tenants, a ride home from school in the pouring rain, with the two developing more and more of a special bond when they keep hanging out, though of course their individual struggles threaten to get in the way of their own happy ending.

Though Ali & Ava is conceptually a far cry from her darker previous work like The Arbor, The Selfish Giant and Dark River, writer-director Clio Barnard maintains her naturalistic filmmaking style to get more of an emotional effect out of the viewer. The results are, surprisingly, a little uneven. On the one hand, Barnard’s style allows for the dialogue and performances to flow naturally without feeling too contrived, and also lets certain scenes play out for as long as they need to while avoiding a lot of the trite, over-rehearsed dialogue you often find in particularly cloying romantic dramas. However, the style often tends to clash with the familiar structure that Barnard has applied to her film, making some of the usual romantic movie tropes – including a third-act break-up which feels particularly forced – stand out even more, despite the gritty realism that has been applied. You can definitely notice whenever Barnard writes herself into a corner with some of the story beats she appears to have taken right from the romance genre guidebook, because they form a less sturdy anchor for a lot of scenes involving plot points which feel either underdeveloped or underwritten to a point where you wonder why it was even included; strands involving one of Ava’s daughters clearly suffering from a severe mental disorder, and Ali’s judgemental family casting strong doubts on Ava and her Irish Republican heritage (his snobbish sister calls her a “gori chav” based purely on her prejudiced conceptions of local women), aren’t given as much attention as they probably should, in favour of the familiar romance strands that are much easier to recognise.

The film at least has the honour of having both Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook as the Ali and Ava respectively of Ali & Ava. The two actors have a real loving chemistry with each other, and you can tell that both of them are at first just ecstatic about having finally found someone to confide in within their lonely lives, because the actors’ magnetic energy and naturalistic dialogue-swapping is infectious to a point where you may start to feel a little bit of joy coming out of yourself. They are a couple of individual characters, as well as an actual couple, that you do genuinely root for, as the actors offer some smart and layered portrayals of people that Barnard has introduced in her script, and give them plenty of likeable moments that even have you siding with, of all people, someone who happens to be a landlord. When the film does have to give in to some of the typical romantic movie conventions, including aforementioned forced third-act break-up, both Akhtar and Rushbrook are still great in selling these more contrived moments, once again proving their worth as formidable screen talents.

Admittedly, my feelings towards this movie are perhaps a little more mixed than others, because while I do greatly respect the naturalistic style brought to this movie, as well as the two exceptional lead performances, I really do wish that it did more with subverting some of the more familiar conventions which really did take me out of the movie whenever they were introduced. That, and maybe more of a focus on other strands that the film introduces but rarely follows up upon, barely prevents Ali & Ava from being a genuine winner for me.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Ali & Ava is a romance that benefits from a naturalistic style by writer-director Clio Barnard, as well as two lovable performances by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, but falters whenever it has to apply some usual conventions which disrupt the easy-going vibe and distracts from some of its underdeveloped strands.

Ali & Ava is showing in cinemas nationwide from Friday 4th March 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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