It’s all about Relationships
Ali & Ava and Vengeance
By Marc Glassman
Ali & Ava
Clio Barnard, writer and director
Starring: Adeel Akhtar (Ali), Claire Rushbrook (Ava), Shaun Thomas (Callum), Ellora Torchia (Runa), Natalie Gavin (Dawn)
Brexit may have happened, but multicultural Britain is a reality, nonetheless. In a new Canadian film release, Clio Barnard, one of the brightest lights in contemporary British cinema celebrates the England she knows in the down-to-earth romantic comedy Ali & Ava. Neither of Barnard’s leads—Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook–are Hollywood icons: they’re middle aged and haven’t been to the gym lately. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t feel passion or have stopped loving music and the people in their lives. Their story is compelling because it’s so authentic.
Ali and Ava live in Bradford, hardly a romantic area of England. He’s a landlord while she’s a teacher’s assistant—not exactly Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley jobs. They meet because Ali picks up one of Ava’s students on a rainy day and drives her home. The two are not obvious soulmates but they joke when first meeting, a good sign, and have fun fighting over musical choices. Ali loves the Buzzcocks and hot rock from the ‘80s while Ava is a country music girl.
Barnard has a way of evoking intimacy with her performers and it’s a strength in this film. No doubt Akhtar and Rushbrook are fine actors—they’re Brits after all—but this film is all about their rapport, which must have been aided by Barnard. We care about Ali and Ava even if circumstances are against them. In fact, they’re sexy together when no one is looking and judging.
Ali, it turns out, is still married—but unhappily, and for a long time. And one of Ava’s kids, Callum, is a punk racist, who finds Ali’s presence in his mother’s existence to be horrifying.
Barnard plays out as much of the various plot points as is necessary but concentrates on scenes of friendship and redemption. Ultimately, Ali & Ava is a comedy—admittedly with a tougher and more racial background than might be expected—and we’re rewarded with a unique genre piece, which is worthy of critical and popular praise.
B.J. Novak, director, writer and star
Starring: B. J. Novak (Ben Manalowitz), Boyd Hobrook (Ty Shaw), Dove Cameron (Kansas City Shaw), Issa Rae (Eloise), Ashton Kutcher (Quinten Sellers), Isabella Amara (Paris Shaw), J. Smith-Cameron (Sharon Shaw), Lio Tipton (Abilene Shaw)
B.J. Novak, one of the leads in the U.S. version of The Office has returned to the Hollywood fray after a decade spent as a writer (imagine that!) with a very smart indie feature, Vengeance. In it, he plays Ben, unsurprisingly a New Yorker writer, who hooks up with as many women as possible, until he is called one night by Ty, the older brother of one of his lady friends, who tells him that she is dead. Ben never thought much of his relationship to Abi (whose name is short for Abilene), but Ty lets him know, quite emotionally, that she really cared about him. So, he ends up going to her funeral in west Texas, trying to understand his life and its relationship to America’s heartland.
Vengeance is a fish-out-of-water story, with B.J.’s Ben being the obvious Salmon (or Shark or whatever Fish you’d like.) Here’s the intellectual Jew attempting to understand Texas after Ty hooks him into staying while they figure out whether Abi has been killed or not. Ben is baffled by most of what he sees in Texas apart from his encounter with Quinten Sellers, Abi’s record producer, who is profound and accessible—and is the opposite of what Ben expected him to be, a horrible Southern stereotype.
Ben spends time with Abi’s family, who turn out to be far more complex than his notion of Texans. He meets Quinten Sellers, Abi’s record producer (she wanted to be a singer-songwriter) and discovers that she was a much deeper individual than he realized. So is Quinten: as played by Ashton Kutcher, he’s far more interesting than any East Coast American (or Canadian) would have anticipated.
Vengeance takes us to a point where we want something profound or moving to happen. Sadly, Novak and his film doesn’t deliver. Having set us up for a satire on Texans—and Trump-ites—Novak offers a nuanced version of Republican America. Novak’s Ben ends up caring about Abi and her family but in a way that doesn’t have any impact. Vengeance is a film that is neither a satire nor a comedy/drama that “solves” our concerns about America. (And frankly, how could it?)
Novak’s film reminds me of indie films from a couple of decades ago: strange smart Sundance successes that people loved but were never big successes. This one won’t be either. But it’s likeable and sincere and deserves to be seen even if it poses way more questions than it can possibly answer.