For Northerners, nothing else articulates love and compassion quite like the simple gesture of offering to make somebody a brew. Such are the subtle complexities of life in the North that Yorkshire-born director Clio Barnard communicates most eloquently in her work. Barnard understands that a brew is more than just an offer of a hot drink; it can be an opportunity to sit, talk and share a comforting moment with someone. With her newest feature, Ali & Ava, Barnard considers how these sincere acts of tenderness can blossom and bridge the gaps that threaten to divide us.
Claire Rushbrook stars as Ava, your typical working-class Mum. She’s a one-to-one teaching assistant at a local primary school and the kind of woman ready to offer her help to anybody in need—especially those who live on the surrounding council estate. Adeel Akhtar plays Ali, a landlord and music obsessive, defined by his cheeky sense of humour. He’s perhaps the only landlord in cinematic history to be a good guy; he’s doing well for himself, but that doesn’t stop him from being an active member of his local Bradford community. When picking up one of his tenant’s daughters from school, he meets Ava and offers her a lift home. The pair are kindred spirits and instantly hit it off: Ava enamoured by Ali’s carefree temperament, and Ali smitten with Ava’s caring personality.
We follow them through a meandering period of infatuation, seen best in one joyous scene in which the pair use Ava’s living room to stage their own silent disco. Dig a little deeper, however, and we realise the pair share more than mutual affection; they each come with complicated relationship histories. Ava’s husband (now deceased) was physically abusive and an active member of the EDL. She’s managed to move on from her past, complete a degree and find a job she enjoys, but her son, who still thinks of his Father fondly, stubbornly carries on his Dad’s intolerant legacy. Ali’s home life is equally complicated: he’s separated from his wife, but they still live under the same roof. Unable to tell his family of his failed marriage, he lives a kind of half-life, isolated yet surrounded by those he loves.
Being together means facing ignorant attitudes and potentially sacrificing existing relationships with their loved ones. For example, when Ava’s son catches her and Ali sharing an innocent moment of fun, he comes at Ali with a machete and chases him from the house. Similarly, Ali’s sister accuses him of hanging around a ‘gori chav,’ shaming him for associating with Ava based on her own misconceptions of local Bradford women. Magnificently, Barnard doesn’t reduce the believability of these moments by approaching them with cinematic gravitas. Instead, her story beats are understated, background noise to the love story unfolding on screen. In approaching her narrative this way, she’s able to tap into a form of social realism, which abjectly reflects ingrained prejudice attitudes and their ability to entrench themselves into relationships.
The obvious comparison is Ken Loach, being that Barnard seems to portray the reality of working-class lives effortlessly. Yet, although Barnard achieves a similar lived-in grittiness to her tale, she also brings her own unique perspective. Her characters are more than just a means to explore social values; they are authentic, fleshed-out individuals. If you’re from Bradford or an area like it, you’ll know a woman like Ava—the mother hen of the neighbourhood who you can always count on in a crisis. You’ll know a guy like Ali too: the cheeky chappy who always brings the party with him. Barnard conveys the reality of facing prejudice and ignorance, but her story manages to be more than that. In infusing the idiosyncrasies of Northern life into every moment of her narrative (warts and all), eventually, Ali & Ava begins to feel like a small slice of home.
Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar are perfectly cast, achieving bewitching, butterflies in your stomach levels of chemistry. They balance humour and heartbreak in equal measure, crafting a spellbinding yet realistic portrait of love and friendship. It’s brilliant to see Barnard frame this love story from the perspective of a middle-aged experience, proving that romance and passion don’t belong solely to the youth. Barnard’s work here is fresh and rebellious and precisely what cinema is missing right now: original stories from unique perspectives.
Ali & Ava is a love story for the ages and a triumphant piece of film-making. With it, Clio Barnard cements herself as one of the industry’s most exciting voices.
Ali & Ava screened as part of The BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will release via Altitude Film in February 2022