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The ordinariness of 'Ali & Ava' is what makes it extraordinary

Justin Chang reviews Ali & Ava



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Other segments from the episode on August 12, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 12, 2022: Interview with Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland; Review of Ali & Ava



This is FRESH AIR. The British romantic drama "Ali & Ava" is a story about an interracial relationship between two middle-aged North Englanders. Nominated for two British Academy Film Awards earlier this year, the movie is now playing in theaters and will be available August 23 on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. Our film critic Justin Chang recommends it. Here is his review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Ali & Ava" is a lovely, charming surprise. It's the latest drama written and directed by Clio Barnard, who's received much international acclaim for her powerful, often shatteringly bleak films set in Yorkshire in Northern England. These earlier works - they include "The Arbor," a boldly experimental portrait of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, and "The Selfish Giant," a tale of childhood friendship - are all tragedies of a kind marked by poverty, bigotry, addiction and abuse.

Some of those elements appear in "Ali & Ava," which takes place in Bradford, a city in West Yorkshire, and follows two people who've seen their share of hardships. Ali, played by Adeel Akhtar, is a Pakistani immigrant who experiences plenty of day-to-day racism often from white children who like to throw rocks at his car. Ava, played by Claire Rushbrook, is an Irish-born woman with four children and several grandchildren plus a history of physical and emotional abuse by her recently deceased husband.

But despite all this, the vibe of the movie is sunny and upbeat. And I do mean upbeat. The first time we meet Ali, he's standing on top of his car, dancing and listening to high-energy music on his headphones. Music is a huge part of his life. He's a DJ in his spare time though he earns his living as a landlord. He's beloved by his tenants, many of whom are also immigrants and treat him like family. Each day he drives one tenant's young daughter, Sofia, to school, which is how he crosses paths with Ava, who works as an assistant in Sofia's classroom.

Their first meeting - it's a rainy day, and Ali offers Ava a ride home - isn't exactly love at first sight. But they're both so warm, friendly and open to new experiences that it's no surprise when romantic sparks eventually start to fly. Soon, they're visiting each other's homes and listening to each other's music. Ava loves folk and country, but Ali tries to turn her on to rap and electronica.

In this amusing scene, Ali knocks on Ava's door one evening. She refuses to let him in at first as she's just gotten out of a bath. And so Ali talks to her while peeking through the mail slot.


ADEEL AKHTAR: (As Ali) Do you know what? That's it. That's it. Now I'm going.


AKHTAR: (As Ali) Oh, I've had enough.

RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) All right.

AKHTAR: (As Ali) All right, goodbye.

RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) Bye.

AKHTAR: (As Ali) That's it.

RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) See you.


RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) I can still see you.

AKHTAR: (As Ali) Where?

RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) There.

AKHTAR: (As Ali) Where? Don't jab at me.


AKHTAR: (As Ali) Oh, bloody hell. I see what you mean. You do look a mess, don't you?

RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) Just got out of the bath.

AKHTAR: (As Ali) Ooh, is it still hot?

RUSHBROOK: (As Ava) Well, no, and you're not getting in the bath.

AKHTAR: (As Ali) No. No, of course not. No.

CHANG: There are complications. Ali is married though he and his wife are about to separate. She's looking to move out soon, but Ali still holds out hope for a reconciliation. He's also embarrassed about breaking the news to his tradition-minded relatives who live close by.

Ava is constantly surrounded by her family as well. Her children are always dropping in on her, usually so she can babysit her grandkids. Despite their obvious cultural differences, both Ali and Ava are the emotional glue holding their families together. Still, those differences do have a way of flaring into the open, mainly when Ava's racist son, Callum, played by Shaun Thomas, catches the two of them hanging out and listening to music and chases Ali away with a sword.

There's a lot of small-minded prejudice for Ali and Ava to deal with. Both have busy, messy lives, something Barnard suggests with restless handheld camera work and compulsive editing. What makes the movie so affecting is the sense that despite all this imperfection, Ali and Ava have somehow found each other at an improbably perfect moment.

The two leads are superb. Akhtar plays Ali like something of an overgrown child. He's a lot to take, but he has an irresistibly shaggy charm. And Rushbrook is simply stellar. As the selfless, good-natured Ava, she often flashes a smile you could warm your hands over though she also shows you the piercing loneliness behind that smile.

While there are tender scenes of connection in "Ali & Ava," especially when the two enjoy a quick getaway by train, there are few grandly romantic speeches or gestures. Barnard maintains her tough, realistic approach even as she guides this love story to its hopeful conclusion. Movies so rarely show us something as wonderfully, believably ordinary as Ali and Ava's love, which is precisely why it feels so extraordinary.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang reviewed "Ali & Ava," now playing in theaters.

On Monday's show, Robin Thede, the creator and a star of the HBO series "A Black Lady Sketch Show," which is now up for five Emmys including outstanding variety sketch series. Thede was the first Black woman head writer for a late-night TV talk show on "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore" and hosted her own late-night show on BET called "The Rundown." I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks.


BIANCULLI: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMMET COHEN'S "FUTURE STRIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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