The cross-cultural romance film has seen many iterations, so the fact that filmmaker Clio Barnard has added an elegantly crafted and utterly enjoyable new entry into the oversaturated genre is as delightful a surprise as the film itself. Set in Barnard’s West Yorkshire, “Ali & Ava” charts the tender friendship and gradual romance that develops between two lonely souls from different worlds who share a love of music and a mischievous twinkle in their eyes. Energized by the engrossing charisma of leads Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, “Ali & Ava” is a poignant tribute to the joy of unexpected human connection.
Reeling from a recent separation from his wife following a miscarriage, the exuberant Ali (Akhtar) spends his days visiting tenants and listening to music. When he picks up his tenant’s daughter from school, he offers her teacher a ride home in the rain. He’s charming and persistent, and Ava (Rushbrook) has no choice but to accept the offer despite her best efforts. Passing a funeral proceeding in his British Pakistani neighborhood, Ali rolls down the window to ask a passerby who has died. His kindness does not go unnoticed by Ava, who observes him lightly.
Ali’s infectious energy ignites something in Ava, whose three grown children and five grandchildren consume her cozy flat and personal time. A sullen son, mentally unstable daughter, and infant granddaughter bring her happiness but not much joy, and Ali’s childlike playfulness alights her monotonous days with a flush of color.
In the car, they bond over a shared love of music, though they have wildly divergent tastes. Ali favors punk rock like Buzzcocks and electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, while Ava loves folk and country like Bob Dylan and Karen Dalton. Clever sound editing (shoutout to Rashad Hall-Heinz) elevates their first full scene together, as they listen to two different songs on headphones, dancing together and shout-singing over one another. As the scene cuts between Sylvan Esso’s “Say It on the Radio” to Karen Dalton’s “Something on Your Mind” a sweet dissonance emerges, heralding the unexpected romance to come.
Ava is a warm soul with a self-protective shell around her, borne out of one too many disappointing men, including her abusive ex-husband. Though recently passed, his specter looms large, especially through Ava’s son Callum (Shaun Thomas), whom she’s protected from learning of his father’s behavior. The first time Callum finds Ali in the house, he chases him out with a sword on display in his bedroom, fuming profusely. Worried she’ll never see him again, Ava apologizes by sending a note home with her student, the envelope carved with a Z and the word “Zorry!” Being the affable chap he is, Ali is amused by this gesture and laughs it off.
Though the hostility of Callum’s reaction feels racially charged, Ali accepts Ava’s explanation that he’s not ready for his mum to date any man. The couple’s class and race differences churn alongside the otherwise buoyant romance, never quite erupting in any direct way. When Ali and Ava pass a group of children, for instance, throwing rocks at his car, it’s unclear if they’re shouting slurs or just being brats. Once again, Ali chooses to see the good in the children and offers them all rides home.
Throughout the film, Barnard sows ominous seeds of bigotry, taking an effective but always sideways approach to matters of race. When Ava’s eldest daughter warns “Them lot are all the same,” Ava asks if her dad is like “them lot.” “That’s different,” she replies. “He’s Indian.” It’s no secret, especially post-Brexit, that England is home to many racists and xenophobes. What Barnard captures so expertly is the complicated ways people can live side by side and still look past each other. Ali and Ava’s story is full of hope — they see each other over that invisible line.
While Ava’s family feels drawn from experience, Ali’s falls a little flat. The many dinner scenes with his family highlight Ali’s isolation, and so the other players never come fully into focus. His home scenes revolve around his estrangement from his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) and their efforts to keep their separation secret, which he claims is for her benefit but is really for his. His mother, seen briefly in domestic tasks, fades into the background. There are bustling scenes of Ali’s vibrant British Pakistani community, but the film is devoid of any particularities of the culture. Though presented as a neighborly figure, the Ali of the film exists outside of his community, his time with Ava a respite from the demands of family and tradition.
But Akhtar imbues Ali with such an aliveness, an electric joyfulness teetering on the edge of sorrow, that he is a whole enough character to fill any unintentional gaps. He is undeniably alluring, in that shaggy kind of way, and Rushbrook meets his energy with an equally appealing but quieter charm. An accomplished stage and TV actress who began her film career with Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies,” Rushbrook can convey the caution of a middle-aged woman and the girlish flush of fresh desire in a single glance. Seeing a more seasoned woman in a romance is always refreshing, and Rushbrook makes a very strong case for their superiority.
As she did in her experimental documentary “The Arbor” and narratives “The Selfish Giant” and “Dark River,” Barnard once again proves herself the bard of the British working class. In “Ali & Ava,” she abandons her occasionally bleak realism for a kind of stubborn hopefulness, letting the delight of unexpected connection break through the storm clouds.
“Ali & Ava” screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.