Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist
Seventeen-year-old Ava is anything but a stereotypical teenage rebel. A serious-minded student and talented violinist passionate about classical music, she is also interested in dating a young man she likes – although she does it as a bet and her intentions are clearly chaste.
However, Ava lives in contemporary Iran, where – writer-director Sadaf Foroughi sets out to show – even mild infractions of official decorum can lead to a young woman being demonised and made a pariah. Ava is the first feature by Iranian-born, Canadian-based artist and filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi, drawing on her own teenage experience in Iran, where the film was shot. While the result has the ring of personal insight, it is a detached, somewhat stylised realist drama which generally comes across less as a cri de coeur than as a coolly executed social exposé.
Ava’s ordeal is triggered by the mildest of transgressions – her bet that she can date Nima, who accompanies her on piano at her violin class. But mild transgression can seem outrageous in her world: that her accompanist is male itself outrages her mother, who also reacts furiously to Ava visiting a female friend whose household is considered disreputable, as her parents have separated. Suspicion and indeed disgrace can easily descend at any moment on a young woman in this milieu: an entirely decorous tryst with Nima leads to Ava’s mother making her undergo a gynaecological examination.
Ava’s class is subjected to a fierce lecture, triggered by the case – possibly invented by her teacher as a terrible warning – of a local girl who got pregnant and tried to abort at school. The culture of shaming which hangs over these young women reveals its undertow of hypocrisy when it emerges that Ava’s own parents married because her mother Bahar became pregnant – which both goes some way to explaining Bahar’s overprotectiveness and exposes it as contradictory.
Seemingly a model pupil, Ava – identified by her teachers as a figure of disgrace – retreats into herself and into a rebellion that expresses itself partly in self-harm. A tensely sustained classroom sequence, in which Ava holds a pair of scissors with an increasing nervous tremor, culminates in her stabbing her own hand.
What is truly alarming in Ava is the unconditional condemnation that she faces: instead of regarding her as in need of help, her teachers see her as a trouble-maker bringing the school into disrepute. Her violin teacher has little patience with a gifted student who shows signs of stress, while her mother appears to lack all signs of tenderness. Conversely, it is her father Vahid, whose profession involves some sort of creative activity, who is easy-going and empathetic, and to whom Ava literally reaches out in a close-up shot in which she tentatively makes to touch his hand, then withdraws. Meanwhile, scenes between her parents show the tensions between the couple, who have grown apart with time, Vahid’s casual attitude and frequent absences for work apparently contributing to the pressures on hospital doctor Bahar. While the film is critical about an oppressive society, it nevertheless incorporates a dimension of ‘everyone has their reasons’.
Ava ends with a shot that might be considered Foroughi’s personal sign-off, nodding to The 400 Blows: Ava walks out of school and, echoing Truffaut’s beleaguered but tenacious Antoine Doinel, fixes the camera with a challenging, unbowed gaze.
This overt address to the viewer is in keeping with Foroughi’s strongly stylised approach, not least in colour scheme and production design. The film is dominated by oppressively bland shades of greenish blue, which define the décor of both school and hospital and are echoed in characters’ clothing; complementarily, in her moments of retreat, Ava is often enveloped in a caramel-orange glow of precarious security. The film’s arrangement of space is defined by stark corridors and smooth, hard expanses of wall. Ava’s flat is a place of enclosure and partition, setting characters apart: even when she’s in the same room as them, she often seems to inhabit a separate space from her parents.
The acting is generally naturalistic, although the authority figures – notably Leili Rashidi as the school head – often adopt a heightened performance style, notably when delivering furious moral sermons. Conversely, the classroom scenes with Ava and her peers have a breezy feel of relaxed authenticity.
At the centre of the film, newcomer Mahoud Jabbari’s reserved Ava – her emotional energies largely concentrated in her solemn, dark-browed eyes – is never made to seem an exemplary dissident, but her pensive calm makes her often internalised anger all the more palpable. We understand that, far from being exceptional, Ava is a perfectly average victim of her society – but one who, that last shot insists, has the wherewithal to survive.