Ava’s director and writer, Léa Mysius, awards her leading lady the credit and reverence that teenagers are habitually robbed of in feature films. Her contemplative coming-of-age drama does more than pay lip service to the woes of neo-neurotic thirteen-year-old Ava (Noée Abita), as she navigates her passage into womanhood.
In addition to her burgeoning angst, Ava has a more pressing issue – she is losing her sight, and the prognosis is not good. A doctor sullenly informs her that the clarity of vision in both eyes will be gradually lost over the course of the summer - news of which she deals with nonchalantly, as her mother reacts with over-compensatory reassurance, determined to give Ava ‘the best summer holiday ever’. Nothing is further from the truth, as her mother abandons Ava with her infant sibling as she cavorts with brazen gigolos half her age on the local beach, subverting their mother-daughter relationship. It doesn’t take long before Ava bores of her empty existence and begins to seek out adventure, starting with stealing a local ruffian’s black dog…
Mysius’ film has painterly picture postcard aspirations. The opening scene is beautifully rendered with milling families on a beachfront, as a black dog weaves its way through the throng to reach Ava on a pier. It’s a remarkably captured sequence, not only for being able to make an animal perform on cue, but an array of technical competence on display that even seasoned directors could learning a thing from.
Her indifference is cooly played by Abita
The expressions of Abita are often that of a doe-eyed observer, rarely cracking a smile, as the world orbits around her, strikingly reminiscent of Adele Exarchapolous’ debut in Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013). She serves as both manipulator and manipulated, in the quest for meaningful kinship beyond the superficial young boys she encounters on the beach and the discomfort of her ‘best friends’ dynamic with her mother. Throughout, her indifference is cooly played by Abita, encouraging you to side with the isolation and kick-about boredom, pre-empting the excitement of going off-the-rails when the narrative steps up.
The screenplay even manages to wedge in references to French right-wing politics
Be forewarned, there is a substantial amount of ‘underage’ nudity (though Abita was 17 at the time of filming - within legal parameters in France). None of which feels gratuitous or out of place, but symbolic of her transition into adulthood. In sexual encounters, Ava is not lingered on or leered over, in other scenes her nudity takes on a hippy-like freedom as she looks for connections and a sense of place. Her sexual awakening is felt through dreams and nightmares, a highlight of which is a marvellously surreal scene of Ava as a tribal outlaw.
The screenplay even manages to wedge in some none too subtle references to French centrist and right-wing politics by using a recurring motif of authoritarian figures, primarily associated with a GRT (Gypsy, Romany, Traveller) boy, estranged from everyone but Ava. The intentions of this commentary is unclear, but the sympathy elicited towards minority groups is boldly underlined, using disruptive forces to agitate characters peacefully living their lives ‘off-grid’.
It’s undeniable there are going to be comparisons drawn to other equally respectful and frank portrayals of teenage femininity of late, particularly Marianne Heller’s Diary Of A Teenage Girl (2015), and fellow countrywoman, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) - and more power to them. Mysius’ debut sensitively handles her central performer with a low-key affection and fondness, maintaining the integrity of the tumultuary nature of adolescence. Sadly, the allusions to Ava’s sight-loss feels like a forgotten gimmick as the narrative plods on, but you could read into her use of shadow and black as a continuation.
Ava sets about putting you in the hesitant shoes of a pensive protagonist, whose quiet and curious company is salve to the raucous brash outbursts of other screen teenagers. Mysius’ work aspires to be greater than a coming-of-age ‘dear diary’ yarn, and though misguided in its dramatic intent during the latter third, still retains the truthfulness of her lead and makes for an enjoyable pioneering foray into authentic teenage drama.