Romance sparks between two lost souls amid the housing estates of Bradford.
Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a chaotic music lover and landlord of multiple properties – any debate around the morality of that profession is never mentioned – while Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a teaching assistant, with four grown-up children and five grandkids. While family is the centre of Ava’s life, Ali is concealing from his own relatives the recent separation between he and wife Runa (Ellora Torchia), who is furthering her studies and growing apart from him as a result.
Like so many great movie romances, the bond between the titular duo begins with a chance encounter. Ali arrives at Ava’s school in order to pick up the daughter of some of his Slovakian tenants, with whom he is close friends. As rain pours down, Ali offers Ava a lift home and they bond. Interestingly, though, their initial spark is built as much on their differences – he likes punk rock, she loves country and folk – as the feelings of lost love and romantic detachment that they have in common.
Character actor Akhtar shines in a rare leading role, bringing a real sense of warmth to Ali and finding shades of tragedy beneath his outward persona as a carefree man-child. When we see Ali dancing alone atop his car in a misty field, unleashing a primal scream into the void, the character’s pain is as visible in Akhtar’s hunched, defensive physicality as it is in his choice of secluded location. His fondness for wearing a hood over a baseball cap initially looks like a quirky affectation, but eventually becomes emblematic of his desire to hide from anything serious.
The same sense of barely concealed tragedy affects Rushbrook’s character. Another under-appreciated supporting player ascending to top billing, Rushbrook throws herself into the portrayal of a woman who has spent several decades defined by motherhood and is now looking for an identity beyond her offspring. Ava lives in a housing estate with a troubled reputation and Barnard’s cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland renders the city as a washed-out land in which hope is on the scarce side.
If there’s a frustration about Ali & Ava, it’s that it feels as if it occasionally pulls punches you’d expect Barnard to land. This is particularly true of the spectre of racism, which flits periodically into view, but is never drilled down into and explored with the detail you’d expect. Much of this is embodied by Ava’s son Callum but his story arc feels under-cooked, as if the movie opts out of delving into that particular issue. The same is true of Ali’s status as a landlord, which seems ripe for unpicking – particularly given the dire housing situation in Bradford. A hotline set up during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 received more than 8,000 calls from those who had either become homeless or feared they were under threat.
But despite its shortcomings on the big issues, the real achievement and focal point of the film is in the bond it finds between two people who, despite circuitous and wildly different paths, have reached a similar crossroads point in their lives. It’s a sensitive and well-observed depiction of the process of falling in love, eschewing romantic clichés for something focused, identifiable and often utterly charming. In the hands of actors as talented as Akhtar and Rushbrook – finally getting their chances to shine in the spotlight – it has the power to bring warmth to the chilly Yorkshire landscapes.