Coming-of-age films are really coming along nicely (I know, that was lame) over the past few years, with many great films that understand what makes the genre such a well-liked genre. We have plenty of stand-out entries like Kelly Fremon Craig‘s Edge of Seventeen, Greta Gerwig‘s Lady Bird and Marielle Heller‘s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
But in recent years, we’ve also have gotten more unorthodox or unique entries like Julia Ducornau‘s Raw or Jaochim Trier‘s Thelma, which both mixed horror tropes with womanhood and teenage angst beautifully; David Wnendt‘s Wetlands, which combined graphic raunchiness and bodily fluids to create a hilarious and compelling character study; Celine Sciamma‘s Girlhood, which shows the lives of young French black women; and then there’s Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘s Mustang, which shows the lives of young Turkish women living in a conservative (and understated) society.
And among those prior entries, we have Lea Mysius‘ Ava, an off-kilter entry that combines teenage sexual exploration, loss of youthful innocence and filial relationships with surrealism with a strong visual eye. But does it rank well with films like Raw and Lady Bird?
The film starts off in a crowded beach, where the titular character Ava,(Noee Abita) as she lies under the hot sun, where a black foreboding figure stands in the distance. It turns out to be a dog, but in the eyes of Ava, it hints of her impending fate, which is she is gradually becoming blind.
Her mother (Laure Calamy) reacts to the news by ignoring it, but Ava approaches the problem on her own terms, which leads her to prepare for the worst, as well as discovering new things about herself due to her turbulent teenage life.
Much like the off-kilter entries of coming-of-age, Ava is a visually striking and thematically challenging piece of work that never sugarcoats the character and the conditions she lives in. Neither Lea Mysius or actress Noee Abita ever try to make Ava likable, but they do manage to engender empathy for her. Director Mysius gives the film a thrilling sense of anarchy, as we feel troubled, never sensing where Ava would go or end up in throughout the course of the film.
Shot on 35mm by cinematographer and surprisingly, co-screenwriter Paul Guilhaume, the film has a vibrant visual touch that meshes seamlessly with the subplot about the Ava‘s loss of sight. Dream sequences hinting of sexual discovery, worlds falling apart (in tandem with her sight) and especially her views about her mother are downright haunting, even with a visual cue that was reminiscent of a moment in Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s House. It could be a way that shows her deteriorating sight is a metaphor for her dwindling youthful optimism and both Mysius and Guilhaume do a wonderful job in conveying such psychological shades.
Even with the visuals, the characters themselves are well-developed, intriguing and thankfully, real. The relationship between Ava and her mother, Maud, is quite similar to most mother-daughter relationships in coming-of-age films as they show estrangement and hostility, but in the case of Ava, it’s not about what is said to each other, but what’s not being said.
There’s a scene in the film where Maud tells Ava about falling in love, the film focuses on Ava and what she hears and the voice of Maud fades out and what the audience only hears is the mutterings of strangers in the distance. Not only that, Maud is out of focus in the shot as she goes on and on about her story, being oblivious about the fact that Ava is ignoring her.
This subtle approach does wonders for the film as well as the gradual character development, as it hints that to look for some sort of excitement or solidarity, Ava turns to a more radical approach like petty crime (which involves petty theft in a scene that is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde) and going out with rebels, leading to a path of prurience.
And of course, major credit goes to the actress Noee Abita. Following the path of young French female talent like Garance Marillier (Raw), Marine Vacth (Young and Beautiful) and Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour), Abita is absolutely fearless as Ava. Considering the tolls that her character goes through (like sexual exploration) and her strikingly youthful appearance (her character is 13 years old but Abita was 17 during filming), Abita takes it upon herself to portray those facets as honest as possible and she pulls it off brilliantly.
But let’s not forget Laure Calamy as Maud, Ava‘s mother, who is a character that is just as complex and filled with contradictions as Ava. She isn’t exactly the lovable mother, but she isn’t the cruel mother either; nor is she either devoted or a slacker. But through it all, she tries her best to provide Ava a great vacation, but she’s preoccupied with her romantic entanglement. This provides a nice compliment to Ava‘s story, showing a contrast that makes it feel like Maud is going through a new chapter of her own, and Calamy does a great job in conveying those contradictions convincingly.
As for flaws, the change in tone due to the visuals can be quite jarring, particularly during a scene that involves Ava and her boyfriend, donning mud and sticks to disguise themselves while robbing beachgoers. And there is also the more controversial elements like seeing the titular character go through stages of sexual exploration with the character’s age in consideration, which can be quite be upsetting to some.
And last but not least, the ending. It ends inconclusively, leaving Ava in the air, which will throw off some. But it does seem deliberate and in a way, it makes perfect sense, considering that it seems to reflect Ava‘s gradual loss of sight and how it hints that she would not know what is on the horizon after her sight is gone.
However the ending may be, it still doesn’t take away the fact that Ava is one hell of a feature-length directorial debut for Lea Mysius. It’s hazy, it’s hypnotic, it’s unruly, it’s unpredictable and yet it’s grounded in reality and it has fantastic performances from Abita and Calamy. If you like coming-of-age stories with an experimental approach, Ava is your best bet.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
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