Ali, a loveable property manager-(suspend belief for just a moment)-cum-DJ – “bhangra by day, electro at night” – meets classroom assistant Ava while doing the school run for one of his clients, despite two very different personalities, the connection is near-instant.
Both from entirely different worlds, Ava, of Irish heritage, living in a particularly rough part of town, single with children and grandchildren endlessly passing in and out of her house, and Ali residing in a largely South Asian area, and still keeping up the artifice of a relationship with his ex-wife in front of his traditionalist family.
This blueprint would suggest a film centred on cultural divides between the two, but writer and director Clio Barnard makes this small fry compared to the personal burdens each carries. Over the short but sweet runtime they try to find a world in which they can live together, one where Ava’s children (including a sword-wielding son jokingly dubbed ‘Zorro’ by Ali) can come to terms with someone replacing their dad, where Ava can overcome her past trauma from terrible men, and where Ali can swallow his pride and tell his family he is no longer with his wife.
Ali worships his record collection, with a keen interest in dance music, where Ava leans more toward folk, much to Ali’s disgust. Despite this divide, there are multiple genuinely euphoric scenes of sonic bliss between the two, with a soundtrack bouncing from Buzzcocks to Sylvan Esso (whose track Slave to the Radio features often), Bob Dylan to British MC’ing over deep house. The disparate soundtrack a testament to the theme of different cultures living together that runs through the films DNA, an auditory portrait of a multicultural city, soundwaves breaking the barriers each has put up to protect themselves.
Naturalism rarely looks as lived in as when the pair connect over music, whether that’s both screaming The Specials, much to the chagrin of the neighbours I’m sure, or rapping with a gang of unruly kids on the estate. Ava is soon swept up in Ali’s wonderful world, with Adeel Akhtar mining his comedy experience for frequent laughs, and Ali is more than happy to help with family troubles of Ava’s, at least when there’s not a sword being waved in his face.
The duo’s persona lives frequently cross wires, and untangling the knots proves harder and harder as the film progresses, but the deeply nuanced performances from the two leads – Adeel Akhtar showcasing fragility in the smallest glances, and Claire Rushbrook seemingly one step removed from any scene, always holding something back out of fear – will have you rooting for them to the end. Submitting to this fear and fragility is the duo’s biggest hurdle; well, apart from their musical differences that is.
Ali & Ava will be released in the UK on February 4.