Review: Ali & Ava (2022)

It all starts with a lift home. Small talk on the ride across town. A kind and welcome offer on a rainy day in Bradford, West Yorkshire. It feels like a chance encounter at first, but as Ali (Adeel Akhtar) drives Ava (Claire Rushbrook) into her neighbourhood, a group of children being rowdy on the side of the road introduce us to the setting and main characters in a way that tells us more about them than any standard exposition could. Ava gets out of the car, clearly aware of the who the children’s parents are, and scolds them for their behaviour. But Ali’s approach is much more unpredictable. He cranks up his speakers, starts dancing with them and bundles the kids into his car to extend the singalong, in turn transforming the delinquent ‘yoofs’ into happy children.

For Ali, music is a huge part of his life and the phrase 'music is medicine' rings very true for his character. It's a crutch during his loneliest moments and a euphoric form of expression, but also a way to connect with others. It makes sense then that the film's soundtrack is a corker, with lead track 'Radio' by Sylvan Esso providing an energy to match Ali's plucky personality when it plays. Music is also one of the first topics that Ali and Ava converse about, with him stating his love for electronic music, rock and punk, and her preferring folk and country (much to his jovial disgust). This is one of the ways that the pair seem entirely different, but instead of seeing each other as just that: 'the other', they grow a mutual appreciation for one another's company, encourage and raise each other up. In a scene when Ali is introducing Ava to punk, the visual metaphor of them singing the same song looking in the opposite direction is clear: they may come from different communities, but they are entirely on the same page when it comes to how they feel when they're together - happy. And why shouldn't they be?

For both Ali and Ava, tragedy isn’t far behind them in their rear view but thankfully this is overshadowed by the joy that they share with each other. For the most part, Ali is a big infectious ball of energy but a piece of his heart is clearly still shattered as a result of experiencing miscarriage with his then-but-now-separated-wife. Though desperately sad to watch, the screenplay handles the largely unspoken issue of men coping with pregnancy loss with care, while Akhtar does an excellent job of portraying a three-dimensional man who is capable of "going from 0-70 with no slip road" all the while being extremely dejected and lonely.

Ava, on the other hand, recently dealt with the death of her husband, but instead of the weight of grief one might expect, she is also working through the trauma of brutal domestic violence (as well as hiding this from her son, Callum). Again, it is worth noting that this is also dealt with very sensitively and without any gratuitous violence or melodrama - the recollection and description from Ava as a survivor of abuse is powerful enough on its own. Despite these horrific past experiences, the magnetism with which they are drawn to each other is strong enough to help them to recover and to break the ties that are holding them back from the delight that a partner can bring.

With all of this in mind, one might think that Ali and Ava just deserve to be happy with one another. Ava not only works hard at her job but also takes on a lot of caring responsibilities as a mother and grandmother, especially for Callum (whose attempts to be protective - with a sword, no less - backfire due to the way in which he deals with his disapproval: with aggression and intimidation). Ali is caught in marital limbo: separated, though not as far as his family are concerned. All of these perspectives are handled with empathy (mindful of potential grief, shame, fear and societal pressures at play) but ultimately the protagonists don't feel comfortable enough to just be together because of backlash from their families. Resultantly, this turns their relationship into something even more exciting to watch as it blossoms.

One of the most beautiful things about this film is how Ali’s and Ava’s lives were entirely separate at the start, and we get to witness them gradually become closer. The sparks that fly when they smile at each other are truly electrifying and it’s a relationship you will root for, even in the moments where it feels like an impossibility. This is why some of the most tender and cinematically gorgeous scenes of the film occur when they leave their respective neighbourhoods and get away with each other in a more natural, freeing environment.

Just as there is much to love about the central story, there is admiration to be found in the minutia of the film too. The intermittent rain, Ava's cracked phone screen and broken umbrella, and her pointing to something and calling it a "doodah" mean that the lives portrayed are all the more realistic. When you take this with the endearing central performances from Akhtar and Rushbrook, the existence of these people in working class Yorkshire is wholly believable and totally engrossing.

In Ali & Ava, Clio Barnard explores what can happen when two people from opposite sides of the same town start a relationship despite a disinclination from those around them to accept it. The emphasis of their story isn’t on the collision of cultures (though it very easily could be) but on what is possible when two different lives are shared with affection. It is a joy to watch.


Verdict: Class and ethnicity can’t keep them apart, but it sure can makes things difficult. Ali and Ava (Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook) ooze charisma in this realistic story of forbidden love in Northern England. They must be protected at all costs.

Overall? ⭐⭐️⭐⭐

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚📚


Thank you to Altitude. Watch the trailer for Ali & Ava below:

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