WHAT I LIKED: Films about people falling in love are as common as muck, but ones as profoundly honest and earnest as Clio Barnard's Bradford-based 'Ali and Ava,' are extremely rare.
It's real in the first instance because it's about such brilliantly complex and ordinary working-class people. Ava is a teaching assistant, divorcee and mother of four (Claire Rushbrook), and Ali a council-estate landlord who's in the midsts of separating from his wife (Adeel Akhtar), so both live in realistically complex situations without a hint of glossy perfection or convenience. The former is introduced to us at home helping her son with his newborn daughter and ushering her own off to school, then sitting on the bus looking at a loved-up couple with a face of lonely acceptance. Ali on the other hand is immediately shown to be stressed and anxious, brilliantly helping out his tennants and his mother at every opportunity and greeting everyone he sees on the streets, but struggling to keep up the pretence of living with his wife and burying himself in his headphones whenever he's alone. Barnard then cuts between them to inevitably set up their first meeting and subsequent journey into love, but even as that happens it never gets remotely close to your usual cinema romance.
Just like in real life, there's no "meet cute;" no moment where the protagonists each fall over at the sight of the other across a public room. The things they slowly come to love about one another are beautifully simple and small; Ava enjoying Ali's wonderful warmth and the way he helps people around the estate with their kids, and him falling in love with her calming nature and their shared love of music. There's something so lovely about seeing that female-gaze realisation of the real reasons people love each other, and that's particularly true because the way Barnard captures it is so perfect; lingering her camera on the pair's faces to focus on the way they're making each other feel, and letting scenes play out for a long time so you get room to really feel those emotions.
That's only enabled of course by two incredible performances, and it all ultimately means that every moment - from the time they meet at school drop-off and sing along to the radio as he gives her a lift home in his car, to the moment he shows her his "man cave," - we truly empathise with that they're bringing to each others lives. It's just lovely to watch, and when the complexities of their respective lives begin to catch up and interfere with their growing relationship, it only adds to the realism.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: As that reality catches up to them, there's suddenly bigger plot mechanics to contend with, and the scenes start to get a little more flippant and perfunctory as a result.
VERDICT: Clio Barnard's 'Ali & Ava,' is an unusually earnest and honest female-gaze portrait of two beautifully complex people falling in love with each others' small wonders.