Though falling in love is as significant and personally defining a milestone as any other, it’s surprising how few movies take the process seriously as their central narrative, compared to say, coming of age movies. Romance may be often considered a genre, but pure examples are shockingly rare in contemporary cinema, usually twinned with mandatory comic or genre elements. Even here, Ali & Ava pairs its romantic drama with the style of hard hitting social realism that director Clio Barnard is famed for. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the best romances in recent times are all Queer-focused, with the complexities of falling in love contrary to social convention deemed a sufficient hook to keep the audience engaged, despite the fact straight people need realistic, serious-minded onscreen romances too.
Ali & Ava proposes to exploit this gap in the market with a romance following two working class people finding love after the independent breakdowns of their respective marriages. Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is that rarest of things, a lovable landlord, whose cautious good nature exerts a positive influence on those around him, including Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a schoolteacher and new grandmother slowly putting her life together in the aftermath of her abusive ex-husband’s death.
The film operates within a number of different arenas, mixing its romance with themes of social pressure, culture clash, class difference, racism, trauma, and the complexities of explaining to one’s children the darkness that resided within their father. Ava’s grown up son Callum (Shaun Thomas) doesn’t know his dad was abusive, and still looks up to him after his death, reacting with irrational anger to any threat to his memory. Meanwhile Ali is still technically married to his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia). Knowing that their families would look down on them for seeking a divorce, and on her in particular, he’s keeping their separation a secret, very much to her frustration, as she’s eager to start dating openly again.
A film dealing with so many different, often harsh subjects could become quite unbalanced, especially with such a reasonable running time, but Ali & Ava does a good job at not forcing these issues into clichéd conflicts, with them largely existing as the thoughts populating the protagonists’ conflicted heads. In each other, they find respite from these issues, but their relationship also brings them to a head, forcing them to deal with the pain they’d heretofore been ignoring. Their shared outlet, and one that brings them together in spite of their wildly differing tastes, is music, which allows Barnard to inject some much needed life, energy and colour into the film, with the terrific soundtrack making it far more aesthetically appealing than it might so easily have been.
The whole cast give strong performances and the film succeeds in avoiding feeling overwritten or too burdened by so many themes, but it does rather sacrifice some level of interest by so doing. Barnard undeniably has a strong pen for dialogue that feels natural and the cast can deliver it organically, but the writing can feel a bit pedestrian on the whole, lacking a real sense of drive, intensity or eloquence. Many of the ideas and conflicts it’s exploring are pretty familiar, and it isn’t exactly putting a radical new perspective on them, nor presenting them in a way that feels particularly inspired. The draw is how underplayed and realistic it all feels, and in that regard there were a few moments that didn’t quite form the seal. Still though, it’s another very humane and sincere work from Barnard, one that’s played with a lot of honesty and heart. It’s refreshing to see two such normal characters leading a romance, and it’s nice to see them both seem to get more attractive the closer and the happier they get.