Clio Barnard returns to Bradford, West Yorkshire, the setting of her earlier films for her latest, a story of unexpected love and connection in midlife. Inspired by people Barnard encountered while making her acclaimed features The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, Ali & Ava is a film profoundly rooted in lived experience, blending a tender emotional complexity with an uncompromising depiction of trauma and grief.
A bundle of good humour and nervous energy, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a British Pakistani working-class landlord whose jovial nature allows him to forge easy bonds with everyone around him. One day, while picking up one of his tenants’ children from school, he offers a lift to teaching assistant Ava (Claire Rushbrook), an Irish-born teacher and single mother of five. They bond almost instantly through their love of music, though Ali favours the high energy of Buzzcocks and hip-hop while Ava takes refuge in the quieter comforts of Bob Dylan and Karen Dalton. Despite their divergent backgrounds, stages of life, and skin colour, Ali’s failing marriage and Ava’s fraught relationship with her adult and adolescent children, each finds themself irresistibly drawn to the other. But can their mutual desire transcend a barrage of personal obstacles?
Akhtar and Rushbrook’s nuanced performances allow the film to explore the setting’s cultural diversity and divisions through a clear but caring lens while still exposing the desperate need everyone has for deeper connections. The result is a film that is both heartbreaking and joyous.