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New to MUBI - AVA

Ava review
As her eyesight rapidly fades, a young girl pursues a mysterious older boy.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lea Mysius

Starring: Noee Abita, Laure Calamy, Juan Cano

ava film 2017 poster

As those who make or simply consume and appreciate movies seek to bring more female voices into the filmmaking fold, there's been much debate about the different qualities women behind the camera may bring to cinema, and you've no doubt seen your share of poorly rendered female characters and found yourself wishing they had been written by a woman. Such binary thinking can be regressive however, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest men are capable of creating complex female characters and vice versa. Some stories however, simply have to be told by a woman. Lea Mysius's striking feature debut, Ava, is one such film.

A sun-kissed French beach is invaded by a black dog, DoP Paul Guilhaume's unforgiving 35mm cinematography rendering the animal a silhouette against the sand and sun. The dog comes upon a young sleeping girl, and begins to chow down on her unprotected fries. The girl is 13-year-old Ava (Noee Abita), spending a listless, restless summer by the sea with her single mother Maud (Laure Calamy). The dog belongs to Juan (Juan Cano), a brooding 18-year-old Spanish gypsy and petty criminal who lives off swiping unattended belongings left on the beach.

Ava review

When a check-up brings Ava the devastating news that her eyesight is rapidly fading and she will be blind within weeks, knowing her life is about to change for the worse, Ava sets her mind to cramming as much of life's sensual pleasures as she can into the few weeks of sight she has left, including experiencing the pleasures of the flesh, with handsome bad boy Juan her target.

A 17-year-old playing a 13-year-old so convincingly she often makes Ava a disturbing and morally debatable watch, Abita is the acting discovery of 2017, a presence that demands your attention without ever resorting to showy tricks. It's a remarkably assured and nuanced performance, capturing the physical awkwardness of a child who believes she's an adult, and it's one that veers seamlessly between cringe comedy and looming tragedy.

Ava review

Behind the camera, Mysius introduces herself with similar assertiveness. They say a filmmaker's debut should include all of their obsessions up to that point, as they may never get to make a second feature. While her film is a uniquely rewarding experience, it leaves no doubt that Mysius is a committed cinephile, nodding to everyone from Luis Bunuel to Nicolas Roeg. The primary influence would seem to be Andrea Arnold, with a teen protagonist on a potentially dangerous journey of self-discovery, a theme shared with both Fish Tank and American Honey.

It's Arnold's 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights that I was most reminded of, with Mysius exploiting the never-ending, breezy French coastline in the same manner Arnold captured the Yorkshire moors, whistling wind replaced by crashing waves, while Juan is very much an (un)romantic love interest broken from the Heathcliff mold.

If at times Mysius' inexperience is betrayed by film school pretensions (a Dali-esque dream sequence involving an eyeball borders on the parodic), it's rendered forgivable by the youthful, punkish energy she brings to her tale. I have to confess that as a male who is old enough to be its anti-hero's father, Ava played closer to a horror movie than the intended coming-of-age fantasy.

Ava review

But that's the point, as while adults will view the eponymous heroine's misdeeds through a paternal or maternal worldview, for Ava, she's conquering the world, life and her ailment. Could this be how adult critics reacted to the antics of Beatty and Dunaway's Bonnie and Clyde?

Her protagonist's vision may be dwindling, but Ava suggests Mysius' own lens will remain open to the light for a long time to come. I look forward to joining her on her filmmaking journey.

Ava is on MUBI UK now.