Ava

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ava
"Beautifully observed, Sadaf Foroughi's feature début explores the way that, even in societies explicitly controlled by men, it's often women who enforce social rules and seek to control one another's behaviour."

How much of the conflict that takes place in families as children grow up stems from the rapidly rewiring teenage brain, and how much from parents' inability to adjust to the changing power dynamic, the shift in their roles? To Ava (Mahour Jabbari), there's nothing sudden or disconcerting about her growing interest in boys and make-up or her desire to exercise more control over her academic direction. It's part of a natural progression. But her mother (Bahar Noohian) not only has the worries of mothers everywhere - that her daughter could be assaulted or impregnated - she also has to face up to a long overdue talk about the society they live in and what that really means. Ava is Iranian. A social slip that might be trivial elsewhere would ruin her life chances.

Ava's mother has a very personal reason to be sensitive about this, but such is her worry that she overcompensates. When she catches Ava outside, unsupervised and wearing lipstick, she drags her off to the hospital for a virginity test - an intimate procedure for which the 15-year-old has not given her consent. It's the start of a rift between them that will have catastrophic consequences. Ava's father, determined to protect his little girl but wither little real awareness of how she's changing, appeals for a gentler and more reasoned approach but only ends up fighting with his wife as a result. Ava's school responds with lectures about morality and the introduction of draconian rules that turn Ava's friends against her and pile on more and more pressure.

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Beautifully observed, Sadaf Foroughi's feature début explores the way that, even in societies explicitly controlled by men, it's often women who enforce social rules and seek to control one another's behaviour. Ava is told starkly at one point that she was nicer when she was quiet, the sort of throwaway remark that can do real damage to a girl only just beginning to develop confidence as an independent person. In fact, it's only as Ava starts to speak up for herself that she is able to retain a degree of control, and in doing so she risks becoming a corrupt as the adults around her.

These are not the daughters of the revolution. Even the headmistress could not have been more than a teenager when the Shah was overthrown. They don't remember the old ways as older people do; they don't have the same resentment of a system they grew up in. Their world simply is the way it is. Ava is part of a younger generation exposed once again to more liberal ideas; their influence is subtle but emerges in her expectations of life, her assumptions about what she is entitled to as a human being. But the more she comes to understand her own humanity in context, the more we get the impression that sooner or later she's going to explode. She finds a voice in music, proud of her skills with the violin, the the passion in the pieces she plays represents something much bigger trying to get out.

Foroughi lets scenes drift in an out of focus to show us something of the stress Ava is under, to make us question what is and is not significant in its impact on her growth. Sometimes she cuts off frames so we see don't see faces; so we're looking down, despondent or demure. A beautiful sequence in which mother and daughter talk to and yet past one another in front of a mirror is a highlight. But it's the final shot, which verges on breaking the fourth wall, that really makes an impact. Everything else in the film builds up to this. What is happening to Ava is unconscionable. What are you going to do about it?

With complex, nuanced performances that tell us a lot about each individual character's history, this film plays out like the Stanford experiment, investigating the impact of closed, hierarchical structures on human behaviour, yet without losing sight of the humanity of those involved. Jabbari's performance gradually builds in intensity, taking us from innocence to experience. The soft notes of the violin become a crescendo. Although the music teacher insists on discipline, on the following of rules, the power in Ava's music comes from something else.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2018
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A youngster in Iran begins to rebel.


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