When 13-year-old loner ‘Ava’ is hit with the prospect of the impending loss of her eyesight while on a French beachside vacation with her family, the spirited teen decides to accelerate her formative experiences while she can, embarking on a voyage of sexual discovery and delinquency as she forms an unlikely romantic bond—in this unconventional coming-of-age story from debutant director Léa Mysius.
After kicking off a fledgling career writing and directing shorts as well as co-penning Arnaud Desplechin’s recent drama ‘Ismael’s Ghosts’, young filmmaker Mysius marks her feature debut by taking elements of a classic Shakespearean ‘star crossed lovers’ narrative and combining it with the romantic delinquent core of ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, adding elements of young sexual awakening from films like ‘The Blue Lagoon’ while scraping a little something off ‘Notes on Blindness’—to create a unique and daring story of fecundity and emotional ripening from a distinct female perspective.
Newcomer Noée Abita stars as the strong-willed titular teenager, struggling with growing pains and the added weight of her imminent blindness, selfishly sharpening her senses and preparing for the inevitable while driving her single mom ‘Maud’ (Laure Calamy)to distraction. Things take a turn when Ava begins to court mysterious nomadic youngster and local wild-child ‘Juan’ (Juan Cano), as they boldly push sexual and social boundaries and embark on a journey driven by mutual convenience—but which may develop into something more.
Any film that would brazenly depict the sexual awakening of a teenager could be accurately described as daring, but with her feature debut Mysius aims to have the audience uncomfortably squirming in their seats by truly pushing the envelope with her eponymous protagonist—despite Abita being seventeen at the time of shooting—crafting extended moments featuring full nudity and sexual activity with characters who the audience accepts as minors, plus a couple of particularly graphic sex scenes featuring other figures.
Yet ‘Ava’ blends a bold, gritty and sometimes dark nature with plenty of charm and dry comedy, featuring quite a few moments of audacious youthful exuberance (often of the criminal variety) and quite a bit of glib and black humour.
Mysius also blends some nuanced social commentary into the narrative, with the themes of divorce and neglect playing a part in the story, as well as the intricacies of Franco-Spaniard gypsy (or gitans) communities and their standing in French society. But at its core this is a classic young romance and coming-of-age tale—albeit with a bold and unconventional treatment—featuring familiar themes of young passion and forbidden love, while turning into somewhat of a road movie by the second act.
‘Ava’ is also stylistically impressive for a debut feature, with the beautiful vistas of south-western coastal France where the film was shot and set vividly captured by co-writer and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, who also reflects Ava’s failing eyesight with the jarring contrast between the brilliant day scenes and dim night ones—not to mention giving the audience a startling surprise with a couple of horrific nightmare sequences. The sound of the film is equally seductive, combining an eclectic soundtrack of world music and underground pop with an atmospheric synth score from Florencia Di Concilio.
For all of its stylistic flourishes and a daring unconventional nature though, ‘Ava’ is prevented from being a true indie gem by an unbalanced narrative, resulting in an uneven story which ultimately proves a tale of two halves. The first a bold and edgy affair with plenty of charisma and humour, which then turns into an impromptu road trip with a destination but no convincing purpose, leading into a second half which forsakes much of what makes the first one work and even dismissively turns Ava’s impending blindness—a driving early element of the story—into a simple character trait. All of which culminates in a rather vague and slightly underwhelming conclusion.
Yet despite the slight letdown which is the third act of the film, so much good work is done in the opening half that ‘Ava’ remains a thoroughly absorbing and slightly confronting breath of cinematic fresh air—thanks largely to an impressively mature and courageous turn from Noée Abita, who keeps the film together and easily holds the audience’s attention throughout with a potential star-making performance . . . in French cinema at least.
The Bottom Line…
Despite some issues with an uneven narrative, ‘Ava’ boast more than enough daring and creativity to make this unconventional coming-of-age drama and bold tale of sexual awakening jump off the screen and capture the audience—thanks to a well executed blend of style and black humour, plus the notable efforts of its impressive young star. An assured debut from a young filmmaker, which makes the name Léa Mysius one to look out for.