BFI LFF 2021

Ali & Ava review – Bradford-set romance is insightful and delightful

Clio Barnard's latest is a surprisingly funny and feelgood affair about the little details that help to shape love and friendships

It’s the first big laugh that really surprises you in Ali & Ava, the title characters bouncing off each other, cracking jokes about each other’s tastes in music – an uncomplicatedly funny and feelgood moment from a filmmaker who rarely provides them. Clio Barnard has been behind some of the most distinctive but exacting British films of the last decade, especially her 2013 tragic fable The Selfish Giant, but she makes an almost effortless shift into crowd-pleasing romcom, all the while retaining the style and sharp edges that defines her work to date.

Landlord Ali (Adeel Akhtar) and primary school class assistant Ava (Claire Rushbrook) are two singles in Bradford, him recently separated from his wife (though still living with her) following a miscarriage, while she's long bereaved, acting as an additional parent for her young grandkids. Ali often does the school run for the youngest daughter of his tenants, and it’s through this that he meets Ava, offering her a lift home during a torrential rainstorm. There’s an instant spark of friendship between the two that grows into something more, stirring up complicated feelings for them and their families.

Though it all happens rather fast, the central relationship never feels rushed, Barnard’s warm and witty script expertly conveying the immediate bond between two infectiously friendly and caring people who realise they’re on to a good thing. Life in Ali & Ava is realistically knotty and complicated, forming meaningful connections even more so, and Barnard shows how love, platonic or romantic, can paper over life’s cracks. There are plenty of absolutely joyful scenes as Ali and Ava grow closer, exchanging books and music during a courtship that is often charmingly old-fashioned.

It’s also refreshing to see a middle-aged woman front and centre in a romcom, and Rushbrook responds to a great role with an equally great performance, really getting into Ava’s head as she constantly jumps between her roles as parent, grandparent, teacher, and tentative partner. Akhtar is fantastic too – he’s been owed a meaty dramatic lead part like this for a while and makes the absolute most of it – and it’s nice to see The Selfish Giant’s Shaun Thomas back in the Barnard-verse as Ava’s over-protective son Callum.

Despite some reservations, Barnard has always clearly loved Bradford, and she brings it to life here in a way we rarely see in English films set in non-London cities. Every street is alive with kids and community and character details, like Ava’s Irish dad liking her first, Indian, husband, but disowning her after a second marriage to an Englishman. It's both bleakly amusing and perfectly encapsulating of a truly multi-cultural city.

There is perhaps a bleaker film to be made from this one's building blocks, but it’s an absolute blessing that Barnard instead delivers this hopeful and funny slice of life. Never sugar-coated, Ali & Ava is nonetheless a welcome reminder of the power that people have to carry one another through good times and bad, and the importance of extracting joy and meaning anywhere you can.

Ali & Ava was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 4 February 2021.

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