Written and directed by Léa Mysius, ‘Ava’ tells the story of a 13-year old girl (Noée Abita) whose holiday by the slummy beaches of Southwest France is ruined when she is diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that is slowly blinding her. While her single mother, Maud (Laure Calamy) juggles attempting a sense of normalcy, and caring for her daughter with her own romantic life, Ava embarks on a journey of self-discovery.
Fascinated by an inky black German shepherd dog she encounters as it drifts among the sunbathing families at the beach, she follows it, and witnesses its owner, a teenaged gypsy boy, in an altercation with the waitress at a beachfront cafe. The police arrive, and the crowd disperses. But Ava becomes preoccupied by the dog and its owner, Juan (Juan Cano).
The influences of other filmmakers abound in ‘Ava’: it draws on various star-crossed lover movies, the themes of Kelly Reichardt's films ('Wendy and Lucy', 'Meek's Cutoff' and ‘River of Grass’ all involve people trying to leave a place whose efforts are frustrated by their lack of resources), a little of Wes Anderson's ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, and some good bits from Jean-Luc Godard, most noticeably ‘Pierrot le fou’. However, the real strength of this film is found in director Mysius’ own nascent style.
Set in the same region of Mysius’ childhood and early adolescence, her debut feature is an often hypnagogic exploration of adolescence, delinquency, burgeoning female sexuality and the trauma of growing up. Mysius daubs the film with black: the dog, the police horses and uniforms evoke the fear of her loss of sight, mirroring her loss of innocence. Black recurs as Ava’s field of vision narrows, represented by the black circles she paints on her bedroom wall and the flashlight she shines on her lover’s face.
A number of Dali-esque surrealist dream sequences become increasingly disturbing (eyeballs in the mouth, Ava’s repulsion at her mother’s sexuality, a baby shot by police), and Paul Guilhaume’s cinematography transforms the mundane setting of the beach into an apocalyptic landscape, complemented by Florencia di Concilio’s tense score. The film is aided by virtue of being shot on 35mm film, allowing depth of colour and providing Ava’s loss of sight with a stylish counterpoint. While a giant abandoned beach bunker juts out of the sand at strange angles, Ava and Juan ditch their clothes and paint themselves in grey mud before holding up shocked nude beach-goers at gunpoint.
17-year old Abita is a standout in the lead role, carrying the film almost single-handedly and giving Ava an authentic mixture of confidence, puzzlement and youthful frustration.
17-year old Abita is a standout in the lead role, carrying the film almost single-handedly and giving Ava an authentic mixture of confidence, puzzlement and youthful frustration. Although the young actress is frequently naked, Guilhaume seems to focus most on the shape of Abita's lips, taking into account size, plumpness, and the definition of the cupid's bow. Like all teenagers, Ava pouts, has a short fuse, and is all too keen to be left alone. When Maud’s concerned boyfriend asks Ava why she has no boyfriend of her own, she replies, “Because I’m mean.” The film isn’t afraid to portray Ava as a teen jerk - if not an unlikeable one, then certainly one that an audience may find inscrutable.
Sadly, the film loses its footing after the first hour, with the plot turning into a kind of Terence Malick-lite ‘Badlands’, with Ava and Juan on the run from the police, followed by a meandering road trip to a gypsy wedding. Away from the carefully constructed beach-side setting, the narrative begins to tire. An abrupt ending also hints at a filmmaker who didn't really know how to close out her story.
As a thought-provoking female coming-of-age tale, ‘Ava’ is a strong first film from Mysius. Even if she loses her grasp on her tale towards the end, there’s no denying that ‘Ava’ is still a visually stunning film, and delivers a powerful indication of what is to come from the young director, as well as the stories she has yet to tell.