British director Clio Barnard put the northern English city of Bradford on the world film map with her previous award-winning efforts, “The Arbor” and “The Selfish Giant,” and she now returns for an interracial romance powered by two excellent performances.
In “Ali & Ava,” which premiered on Sunday in the Directors Fortnight sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival, Ali is played by Adeel Akhtar (“Victoria & Abdul,” “The Big Sick”), who radiates an optimistic warmth despite going through a painful domestic situation and hiding the imminent breakup of his marriage from his proud Asian family. Indeed, he is still living with his wife (Ellora Torchia) and sleeping in separate rooms of a large house, and they both dutifully turn up at bustling family dinners.
However, Ali has taken a shine to the young daughter of one of his tenants; he gives her lifts to primary school, where he meets the little girl’s teacher, Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a blonde, white woman of Irish roots. Both immigrants, Ali and Ava live in the same city but basically in different worlds, which director Barnard conveys with deft economy in rich, observational details.
Such are the battle lines in the industrial Yorkshire city that when Ali offers Ava a lift home during a downpour, he balks when she tells him where she lives. But, as with most things in life, Ali grins and bears it to do what he feels is right, even as local kids spot the “Paki” in the car and start throwing stones.
In a key sequence, he diffuses the situation by getting out of the vehicle, turning his radio up loud and getting them all to dance. Ali is a part-time DJ (in his own basement, at least) and this tune is the first step in bringing people together. Soon, he and Ava are dancing in her sitting room, bonding over music – until Ava’s son bursts in wielding a sword.
Although this film doesn’t achieve the technical daring of her groundbreaking, genre-defying 2010 debut, “The Arbor,” Barnard handles these early scenes with great skill. She draws her characters and their worlds like an expert storyteller. Even if we think we know where it’s headed, there are clearly many obstacles in the way of Ali and Ava, and it is never clear how or if they can be overcome. Especially if there’s a sword hanging on the wall.
Ali and Ava don’t exactly fall in love at first sight, and this is no “West Side Story.” But they clearly feel inexorably drawn to each other’s company, and while they must both be keenly aware of their racial differences, it’s something they never seem to discuss together. However, it’s not something everyone around them can ignore so easily.
One of the film’s great pleasures is watching Rushbrook’s performance as Ava. She lights up the screen with her kind eyes and warmth, a woman feeling some agency and freedom for the first time in years, played by an actress we’ve too rarely seen on the big screen since her notable late 1990s contributions to Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” (she played Brenda Blethyn’s daughter) and opposite Samantha Morton in “Under the Skin.” You can sense the nervousness in her return and the growth in confidence as the film, and her character, get into their stride.
Hardly incident-heavy, “Ali & Ava” will nevertheless find audiences and gently charm them when it does. Obviously, the film is a (perhaps naive) plea for tolerance, but Barnard is too careful a filmmaker to make crass demands of her audiences. She is fascinated by the multi-racial layers of modern life, with mosques and school playgrounds, crumbling social housing and chilly terraces. It’s indicative of the director’s empathy for both the milieu and her characters that she finds great beauty in the morning mists and sparkling lights, an unusual and welcome slice of romance in the traditionally gritty British social realist form. “I love this city,” Ali says at one point, and we utterly believe him. “What, even in the pissing rain?” replies Ava.