Low-stakes rebellion comes easily to Ava (Mahour Jabbari, in an impressive debut), a headstrong teenager who approaches her parents with the kind of eye-rolling moodiness that most high schoolers have down pat. It seems like the kind of thing she’ll outgrow. In the meantime, she’s still a pretty good kid, a bright and vibrant student with a close circle of friends who excels at music and hopes to turn her talent with the violin into a lifelong pursuit. She has the kind of internal life her parents can’t fathom, but there’s nothing strange about that — she is a 17-year-old girl, after all — but as the expectations of her young life in a constricted Tehran become more and more difficult to navigate, Ava’s rebellion morphs into something else.
The film is loosely based on filmmaker Sadar Foroughi’s own coming-of-age in Tehran and won the FIPRESCI Discovery Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered. A domestic drama occupied with the adolescent experience, Foroughi’s unsettling directorial debut feels a bit like an Asghar Farhadi film placed inside a particularly uneasy all-girls high school. It’s as tightly wound as anything Farhadi has made, offering up an exploration of facet of Iranian society that is not often put on the big screen. While Ava’s behavior seems typical for any teen jacked up on hormones and looking to make their own way in the world, Foroughi layers in early hints that something explosive is going to happen.
First, there’s Ava’s mother, Bahar (Bahar Noohian), a control freak hung up on Ava’s decision to study music, a choice she seems convinced will rob her only child of the stability and status she’s grown up in, privileges afforded to her by Bahar’s high-powered job as a doctor. Whatever bond the pair once had no longer holds together, and Ava is preferential towards her father (Vahid Aghapoor), low-key in all the ways his wife is not. Bahar’s fear for Ava’s future may be well-founded, but it drives a wedge between her and her husband, setting everything (and everyone) in their household on edge. Bahar’s obsession with keeping Ava on the straight and narrow, driven by the rigid expectations heaped on young women in Iran, only further pushes her daughter to unraveled ends.
The constraints of Ava’s school life are just as binding, and when Ava isn’t worrying about what her mother thinks of her, she’s forced to contend with her fearsome principal Mrs. Dehkhoda (a chilling Leili Rashidi). A series of unrelated incidents involving girls at other institutions looms large over Ava’s school, and Dehkhoda, who seems to love playing her young charges against each other, opts to deputize the entire student body to snitch on each other if they see something untoward. “Your mind is already polluted!” Dehkhoda screams during a school speech for the ages, and maybe she’s right, but she’s sure as hell not helping. (Case in point: that same speech ends with her literally telling the girls, “Well, you’re going to die!” Subtlety is not her strong suit.)
Foroughi approaches much of her lensing as a voyeur creeping through Ava’s house and school, with her camera lingering inside empty rooms, just waiting for something to happen. When characters do come into frame, they’re often shot at off-kilter angles: a slash of just hips and waists here, a peek through a window there, never the full picture. The filmmaker is obsessed with mirrors, filming her characters looking into them and past them, or through them, as ways to look at others, though rarely looking at themselves.
Despite the specificity of the storyline and its setting, Ava’s concerns are universal, and it’s something as relatable as a maybe-crush on a cute boy that derails her entire life. Ava is sassy with her friends, and when she’s forced to come to terms with the fact that her handsome music partner Nima (Houman Hoursan) isn’t interested in her, she offers up a bet to prove that she can snag a date with him. It’s never clear if Ava likes Nima that way, but when teased about it, she can’t help but act like a typical impetuous teen. There’s never any actual concern that Ava will do something untoward with Nima, but when her unhinged mother discovers that the pair have been hanging without the safeguard of their music lessons between them, she flips.
Foroughi finds the balance in an overwrought situation, and Bahar’s reasons for reacting to violently are warranted, as are Ava’s over-the-top emotional reactions. But the combustible combination of two women who want different things and desire different lives is hard to overcome, even for a mother and daughter. Driven mad by the thought that Ava has somehow fallen, Bahar engages in a series of unforgivable acts: shaming her publicly, destroyig her friendship with her best pal, and marching her off to a gynecologist to make sure she’s still a virgin. Ava is never the same. Neither is Bahar.
Convinced that everyone is talking about her — guess what, they are — Ava continues to crumble, with Jabbari ratcheting up her performance to inspired (and uncomfortable) levels, pushing so far past the normal teenage experience that “Ava” enters horror territory. It’s gut-punch cinema, uneasy and unpredictable, though Foroughi keeps it clicking right along into the rare open ending that feels earned. During one of her rants, Mrs. Dehkhoda implores her students to “hold a mirror up to your miseries,” but Ava has already taken a peek, and she can no longer look away.
“Ava” is now in limited release.