‘Ali & Ava’ Review: Don’t You Want to Sing Along?

In “Ali & Ava” the writer-director Clio Barnard (“The Arbor,” “The Selfish Giant”) leans into the emotional alchemy of an unexpected romance between Ali (Adeel Akhtar), a British-Pakistani D.J. who has recently separated from his wife, and Ava (Claire Rushbrook), an Irish-British teacher and mother of four.

The two are brought together by their mutual affection for one of Ava’s students, and this understated indie film clings uncomfortably to the surface of their relationship, yet still delivers something pure, melodic and precise. Focusing on vivid blue and peach pops of color bursting through a Northern England town’s foggy daylight and moonlit nights, Barnard and the cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland manage to imbue the film with an undeniable warmth. The handheld-heavy camerawork prioritizes close-up images, especially when depicting the growing bond between Ali and Ava.

Yet the onscreen chemistry between them feels forced and flat, and the decidedly tame portrayals of physical intimacy only accentuate this absence. The tension that Ali and Ava’s interracial relationship surfaces within Ava’s family and white neighborhood is barely reckoned with in the film, and the result is an unconvincing racial reconciliation fairy tale in an embattled factory town in Yorkshire.

When the film is buoyant, it is through its blending of diegetic music and traditional scoring to create the auditory equivalent of a tracking shot. From Bob Dylan’s 1960s folk tune, “Mama You Been On My Mind,” to its more contemporary pop, techno and bhangra grooves, music plays continuously across multiple scenes at certain choice moments, giving us an immersive link to Ali and Ava’s internal soundtracks. Which makes you wonder: What if “Ali & Ava” had been able to blossom into a full-on musical? I could dance to that.

Ali & Ava
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.

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