During the French summer holidays, 13-year-old Ava (Noée Abita) has just been diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that is slowly blinding her. While her supportive mother, Maud (Laure Calamy) juggles attempting a sense of normalcy with her own personal life, Ava embarks on a journey of self discovery.
Set in the same region of director Léa Mysius childhood and early adolescence, her debut feature is as assured as they come – a heady, often surreal and sometimes disturbing exploration of adolescence, delinquency and burgeoning sexuality. Through Ava, Mysius captures perfectly the traumatic confusion of growing up. Ava is undoubtedly a coming-of-age story, but describing it as such feels like a disservice to the film’s visual and imaginative force.
Abita is a stand out in the lead role, carrying the film almost single-handedly and imbuing Ava with an authentic mixture of misplaced cockiness, puppyish-naivety and youthful frustration. Her minor delinquency – stealing a dog and hiding it in her room, leaving her baby sister alone in the house to ‘practise’ being blind outside – could easily come off as obnoxious, but Abita’s charismatic performance carries us through with Ava as she runs wild.
Calamy as Maud impresses too, in a supporting role. There are hints that Maud was once as free-spirited as her daughter, but has since been calmed by age and responsibility. Their fractious relationship is in a sense the key to the film’s outlook, and it’s crucial that Maud is no more judged for enjoying life than her teenage daughter.
Framing these performances are Mysius’ stunning visuals, with the colour black established early on as a recurring motif. First seen as a black dog stalking through the beach crowds, it is at once menacing and cheeky. Swiping chips from a dozing Ava, the dog is emblematic of Ava’s own tentative steps into adulthood. Black recurs as Ava’s field of vision narrows, represented by the black circles she paints on her bedroom wall. It’s also the colour of the police uniforms who harrass Ava and her slightly sketchy partner-in-crime, Spanish gypsy Juan (Juan Cano), a hint that the adult world is not all about freedom and wild abandon.
Indeed, as Ava progresses, the surreal imagery just at the edge of the frame come to dominate the mise-en-scène. A handful of Freudian dream sequences become increasingly disturbing, and Paul Guilhaume’s cinematography transforms the mundane setting of the beach into an apocalyptic landscape. While enormous concrete slabs shoot out of the sand at strange angles, Ava and Juan go full-on Lord of the Flies, shedding their clothes and daubing themselves in grey mud before holding up shocked nude beach-goers at gunpoint.
The nudity throughout the film may prove distasteful for some viewers, but though it is frequent it is not gratuitous or exploitative. Sadly, the film’s final scenes lose their footing a little, clearly unsure of how to close the story, and are indicative of some of the film’s rougher edges. Nevertheless, in its totality Ava is a powerful and authentic depiction of a vital moment in a young woman’s life.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell