TIFF 2021 Review: Clio Barnard’s Irresistibly Jubilant “Ali & Ava” Charts a Delicate Dance Towards Romance

Towards the beginning of “Ali & Ava,” one can see a horse-drawn carriage heading into Bradford, a working class city in West Yorkshire, England that has beauty all around being tucked in between the Pennine mountains if anyone had the time to look, though the daily grind for most requires keeping their head down. Clio Barnard, who first went there to investigate the tortured life of playwright Andrea Dunbar in “The Arbor,” had previously noted the discrepancy between the dilapidated conditions of a place that had seen better days and a community that had made their own fun when there was no cavalry coming to lift them up in her narrative debut “The Selfish Giant,” with horses still as common as cars in the streets and deployed on weekends for the equivalent of drag races. As she observed these enchanting scenes of young men finding the magic in what scant resources they had available to them, Barnard was able to work her own and the sight of a put-upon equine has never been more exciting than it is at the start of her latest film, hinting at what’s to come.

There’s an image even before that one in “Ali & Ava” bound to get the heart racing as Ali (Adeel Akhtar) can be seen dancing on the roof of a car in an empty field with only the fog surrounding him, announcing there’s pockets of joy to be found in these parts as “The Selfish Giant” once did before the day gets started, and while Ali surely would prefer to devote more time to making music, he has a full schedule tending to odd jobs. He is also nursing a broken heart, having recently separated from his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia), though their precarious economic situation has made it more convenient to continue to live together and the rift that it could create within the close-knit community has kept them from making it public, though in part it’s because he’s holding out hope for a reconciliation. Still, a favor for a friend, dropping off her daughter at school, puts him in touch with Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a teacher’s assistant who could use a ride one day herself when it’s raining and seem to find a connection over listening to the Buzzcocks, though her general taste for country music threatens to cut things off at the pass.

Although there’s no shortage films eager to convince you their characters are good, it’s rare to feel true kindness as naturally as it emanates between Akhtar and Rushbrook, playing characters who likely have endured lives that are almost certainly more difficult than they ever needed to be and have carried on without complaint, only becoming reticent when they have so much affection to give and no obvious place to put it. One can see from Ava’s keyring alone, a heavy bundle of fuzzy paws and other knickknacks given to her by five grandchildren she couldn’t bear to disappoint by removing even one for her convenience, how she’s put others ahead of herself all her life and rather than any contrived obstacles for her and Ali to get together, Barnard brilliantly recognizes how much both of them have to consider others in their lives before taking their relationship beyond a friendship.

For as lovingly as she and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland lens a place where history is often seen in its architecture as holding it back with abandoned factories and barren fields rather than as mark of its endurance, Barnard clearly appreciates how experience becomes the start of a deeper connection for Ali and Ava and Akhtar and Rushbrook, so often consigned to supporting turns, appear positively radiant in the spotlight, making it all the easier to believe how their characters gaze upon each other as if they’re movie stars when no one else seems to take notice. “Ali & Ava” not only does, but it’s love at first sight.

“Ali & Ava” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next screen at the London Film Festival at the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre on October 13th at 9:20 pm and October 14th at 3 pm.