A unique take on the “coming of age” genre, Ava is a mesmerising first feature.
It would be easy to make parallels with Andrea Arnold’s free-spirited American Honey (2016) and Marielle Heller’s controversial The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), and whilst it is very much cut from the same cloth, Ava, from first time director Léa Mysius, manages to be a unique and refreshing take on the teenage girl coming of age genre.
As well as exploring awakening sexuality, the tumultuous relationships with parents, dating, and the confusion of those first steps into womanhood, it likens the loss of childhood innocence to the loss of Ava’s sight, which is gradually fading due to the condition retinitis pigmentosa. This interesting element also allows the director to play with thematic colour, which when paired with the 35mm film, creates a rich and textured aesthetic that is highly accomplished for a first feature. The recurring theme of “black” and “darkness” is embodied in the dog “Lupo”, a striking, almost featureless vision of negative space who first appears as a stark contrast to the colour pops of a typical beach scene, and is somewhat drawn to Ava, for reasons unknown.
This is very much a film of two halves, and whilst the first half is undoubtedly the stronger half, the second is not without merit. Its setup is fairly by the books to begin with; we’re introduced to Ava (Noée Abita) and her mother Maud (Laure Calamo) and their dysfunctional relationship. At times overly mothering and “babying” towards her teenage daughter, and at others frank and open with sexual discussion and exploration, Maud is an unconventional mother figure and their dynamic is undoubtedly an interesting one. Ava isn’t an incredibly likeable character which is an interesting idea considering she is pretty much in every frame, but newcome Noée Abita does an absolutely astonishing job. Not only was she 17 at the time of filming yet expertly able to play a 13 year old, her unusual eyes and sullen face do a huge amount of the storytelling; a huge burden to place on such a young actress, but she is simply breathtaking.
The sense of normalcy in this coming of age tale is jarringly compromised with some shocking and nightmarish vision sequences; this is very much a film which also has a finger on the surreal and unusual, which bubbles underneath the otherwise conventional surface. As Ava’s relationship develops with mysterious Juan (Juan Cano), there is a darkly comedic sequence of the two of them going on a beach crime spree, naked, coated in clay and bearing arms to unsuspecting sunbathers. It’s an odd but mesmerising expression of freedom and exploration which is just on the right side of “out of place”.
As the film develops into a “young lovers on the run” type of film, it runs out of steam a little, and it is a shame that the mother-daughter dynamic doesn’t have the chance to be expanded on again, and the approaching blindness of Ava also seems to be forgotten slightly. The ending is wholly unsatisfying in many ways, and it is a shame when everything that precedes it had been so strong.
Still, Ava is a unique, mesmerising and gorgeously shot film with an incredible lead performance from newcomer Noée Abita, and an exciting vision from director Léa Mysius. At its best when exploring Ava’s awakening womanhood, and equating the loss of her sight to her fading childhood, it undoubtedly suffers from being a little on the long side and struggling with plot direction in its second half, but it is still an exciting and distinctive directorial debut.