Of South Asian descent, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a former DJ with vague musical ambitions and a day job managing the modest houses his family rents out. Born in Britain to Irish parents, Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a financially strapped classroom assistant who has four children and five grandchildren. The two meet when Ali brings Sofia (Ariana Bodorova), the daughter of two of his tenants, to the school where Ava works. They bond over their shared affection for the little girl, a member of Bradford’s large Slovakian community.
Both Ali and Ava are more or less single. Ali shares a house with his estranged wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia), but she’s planning to move out. Ava’s physically abusive husband is dead, although she has a home full of kids and grandkids. Her son Callum (Shaun Thomas, who appeared in Barnard’s 2013 “The Selfish Giant”) is a major impediment to the potential romance. He’s first seen dancing to Bollywood music on a TV exercise show, but he reacts with fury when he finds his mother with Ali.
Ali and Ava are based on real people Barnard met while making earlier movies, and their characters were developed in collaboration with the actors. Equally naturalistic is the drama’s documentary-style cinematography. Ole Bratt Birkeland shot the film with handheld camera in available light, giving it an impromptu feel (and a lot of scenes that are literally very dark).
Also documentary-like is the movie’s soundtrack, whose everyday ambient sounds are unsweetened by a score. Yet there’s lots of music, most of it illuminating the main characters. Ali is introduced while dancing atop his car to Sylvan Esso’s electro-pop “Radio,” which recurs throughout the movie. Later, Ava and her daughter visit a karaoke bar to sing Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” a folkie tune associated with the Pogues. The two songs are very different in style, but Ali’s and Ava’s musical tastes sometimes converge: They both delight when the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” blasts from a car radio, and Ali is teaching himself Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind.”
For all its concern for authenticity, “Ali & Ava” does share something with glibber, more glamorized movie romances: It takes the attraction between the two paramours for granted, and never really establishes why they’re so drawn to each other. What’s most satisfying about the movie is getting to know Ali and Ava separately. They’re endowed with warmth, depth and believability by Akhtar and Rushbrook, veteran supporting actors who are rarely cast in leading roles. Ali and Ava may not be entirely convincing as lovers, but they’re both exceptionally likable as individuals.
Unrated. At area theaters; available Aug. 23 on Amazon and Apple TV Plus. Contains strong language, threats of violence and hints of sex. 94 minutes.