It is often said that ‘music unites us all’. Filmmaker Clio Barnard takes this intriguing idea of music connecting us to portray another of her realistic and layered social and class-based dramas set in her home county of Yorkshire. In Ali & Ava, the writer-director uses the blossoming relationship between two unlikely but lonely protagonists to explore this concept with such rich empathy and subtle nuances that we deeply care not only about the characters’ destination, but also the crucial healing of both.
The film opens on Four Lions star Adeel Akhtar dancing on his car roof as musician and music lover Ali, who lives in the Pakistani community of Bradford. It is clear that Ali is troubled but at the same time, well-liked and highly generous in nature, even to his estranged wife. On the other side of town lives Ava, played by Secrets & Lies star Claire Rushbrook, a white, working-class mother, grandmother and teaching assistant who is unlucky in love and has almost given up on relationships after a violent past episode.
Through each helping a young schoolgirl with mental health issues from an immigrant family at Ava’s local primary school, the pair meets one evening after school, when Ali offers Ava a lift home. At first they dislike each other’s music tastes, but through respect and eventual mutual understanding, their music bond becomes an emotional bond that neither expected would ever form.
Set against the muted tones but impressive cityscapes of Bradford, Barnard’s gritty cinematography and documentary-style camerawork is ignited by an awe-inspiring energy radiating from her two leads in Akhtar and Rushbrook. Both actors are splendid in their roles, with Akhtar showing another thrilling dimension to his past comedic talents. In fact, the actor infuses moments of irony throughout to capture Ali’s sensitive predicament and how much the character has to lose within his community should his true domestic living situation come to light.
Rushbrook as Ava has skeletons in her closet that are inferred on first appearance of her adult son Callum, played by Bradford-born Shaun Thomas, but only gradually become apparent as the narrative progresses. Rushbrook gracefully acts as Akhtar’s mirror as first, allowing him to open up to his issues, before the mirror is then turned on her, leading to her ultimate emancipation. This whole process is laced with musical episodes as the pair heals and then grows. This tentative journey has twists and turns that mark social norms and key milestones for both. Barnard’s direction allows the characters to breathe and grow at their own pace, showing The Arbor filmmaker’s superior competence in documentary filmmaking that cultivates a pseudo-realism throughout all her feature work.
Ali & Avi is an exquisitely told 21st century love story, warts, barriers and all, that an intoxicating combination of Barnard direction and excellent acting from Akhtar and Rushbrook lifts another northern England tale off the script pages and onto the big screen, complete with a strong will for love and music to conquer all.