The struggle that pits mother against teenage daughter transcends borders and cultures. Moviegoers in the U.S. found this familiar drama most recently expertly told in last year’s Lady Bird (Lady Bird celebrates rites of growing up with dynamic humor and heart). Now comes the Iranian experience of Ava, a story whose conflicts of that eternal struggle take a different but no less vital tone. In the feature debut by writer-director Sadaf Foroughi, things like makeup and even being alone in the presence of boys carries more weight in a culture of hijabs and segregation by gender. Foroughi was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran, but received her education at the University of Provence in Aix-en-Provence, France, as well as the New York Film Academy. With a PHD in film philosophy, it’s no wonder this film feels delicately crafted and firmly expressed via the layers of cinematic language, from music to lighting.
Ava, played with great sympathetic gravity by newcomer Mahour Jabbari, wants to study classical violin, much to the chagrin of her doctor parents, who feel their decision to grant their daughter freedom to choose her academic focus has backfired. Father (Vahid Aghapoor) and mother (Bahar Noohian) always find a way to blame the other, while Ava is caught in the middle. She is always shown at a distance from her parents, be it with focus or mise-en-scene. There’s one moment where a bedroom mirror is used to show the gulf between mother and daughter with the girl’s aunt in between them. It’s a startling cinematic depiction of the chasm between mother and daughter while reminding the viewer of unbreakable familiar bond. Alternately, there’s a moment of revelation for the girl to seize her autonomy as she sits alone on a swing below a bough of ivy and her male interest, musical partner Nima (Houman Hoursan), sitting at her feet.
Beyond music truly the biggest issue facing Ava is sex. Though none of it occurs in the movie, the specter of its repercussions weighs heavy on her, her friends, her parents and the school teachers who try to teach despite that concern on their minds, as well. It’s to a terrible fault, as the white-gloved headmistress Ms. Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi) is so obsessed with gossip and hearsay, not to mention her own personal prejudicial tendencies, she seems blind to any objective truth. The fear of sex is established early on as Ava’s mother threatens to “chop her into tiny pieces” after she catches her wearing makeup supplied by her classmate and friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi). But even worse is the moment early on when the mother takes Ava to the doctor to have her hymen checked because she can’t be sure what Ava may have done with Nima for several hours they slipped away to spend time alone together.
Though these teenage girls’ expressions are limited by their garb and the distance of the camera, the audience will always sense a great weight on these young ladies, whose friendships become strained under the “surveillance” of the adults around them. Foroughi harnesses cinema’s elements to great effect, from performances to staging. There is even some beautiful work in darkness where silhouettes are used to expressive effect. Via a keen use of everything from focus to lighting, the film’s cinematography by Sina Kermanizadeh transmits great information in the movie, down to its last powerful frame. Ava may seem like a low key film whose power relies on the astute storytelling via cinematic devices, but there’s a soulfulness that speaks to an experience that transcends borders and culture.
Ava runs 102 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., select “Where to Watch” at the bottom of the film’s official website. Grasshopper Film shared an online screener link for the purpose of this review.