Girls just want to have fun, even in Iran. Of course, life is much more complicated and restricted for them. The experiences of young Ava Vali are a case in point. Teen girls can still be difficult in Iran as well. Again, Vali is a perfect example. To any rational Westerner, she never does anything outside the bounds of propriety, but her rebelliousness inevitably leads to broken friendships and ruined reputations in Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
Vali wants to take music lessons and date her classmate’s slightly older brother, who accompanies her violin recitals on piano. Most parents reading this review could deal with that (and probably feel like they got off pretty easy), but Vali’s mother is against her continued music studies and would have a melt down if she knew about Nima.
While keeping her slowly developing relationship with Nima a secret from the adults in her life, Vali rather rashly wants to show off for her friends. Yet, being seen with him, even under what most cultures would consider benign circumstances, could be her undoing. Her best friend Melody sometimes covers for her, but when her stern mother finds she is off galavanting, she creates a scene with Melody’s mother that could permanently rupture the girls’ friendship.
Vali’s mother is problematically strict, but she is nothing compared to the holier than thou headmistress, Ms. Dehkhoda. Frankly, prim properness of Ms. Dehkhoda is absolutely chilling. Likewise, her highly critical mother and deceptively easy-going father could easily be characters in an Asghar Farhadi film (like A Separation or The Salesman). Yet, rather awkwardly, young Vali herself comes across as such a deer-caught-in-headlights throughout the film, which undermines some of the intended ambiguity. The notion that this youngster could be a threat to anyone’s authority is hard to buy into.
Nevertheless, there are a number of individual scenes that just bristle with power and significance. Despite the way the misogyny and authoritarianism of contemporary Iranian society makes everything worse, many of the film’s themes and circumstances will be universally accessible, like the parents using Vali as a proxy for their own marital differences. Vahid Aghapoor and Bahar Noohian are quite remarkable as the bickering parent, with the latter fiercely raging while the former keeps everything bottled up, silently but potentially violently.
There is no question Persian cinema has a comparative advantage when it comes to dark, dysfunctional domestic dramas. Ava is not the absolute best of an unusually accomplished lot, but it still makes a statement and leaves an impact. Recommended on balance, Ava screens tomorrow (3/29) at MoMA and Sunday (4/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2018.