Not to be overlooked in this year of startling debut films is Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava, a slow burn melodrama of female teenage angst in Iran. Economically staged to claustrophobic effect, Foroughi arrives with confrontational imagery perfectly matched to the rebellion at the film’s core. Here is an angrier, yet more patient peer to recent films highlighting young women pushing against the limits of what society expects of them, one that’s like watching a lit fuse get closer and closer to explosion. The tension is high, and the stakes are kept punishingly human.
Committing to winning a schoolyard bet, the titular Ava deceives her watchful mother in order to spend time with a boy. She is quickly discovered and subjected to several overreactive humiliations, including being examined by a gynecologist. Ava’s brimming anxiety over her increasing strictures draws the accusations of her hyperconservative school matron while also furthering the divide between Ava’s mother and more passive father. As the film reaches its tipping point and Ava’s, it’s look at authority and submission creates a magnetically composed character study of young women forced toward cultural conformity.
Ava is played by newcomer Mahour Jabbari, an adept and keenly modulated young performer. Jabbari avoids empty histrionics, dialing up Ava’s manifestations of resentments and anxiety and matching them with soulful, empty lows. The chemistry between her and Bahar Noohian as her mother is believable for how their flabbergasted rage with one another squelches the faintest glimmer of affections between them. Noohian is introduced initially as an omniscient voice, seen onscreen only after she has been defined solely through how she reduces her daughter down. It’s a grimmer flip side to the glow of Lady Bird’s mother-daughter relationship, one that is headed for collapse rather than healing.
Similarly, the film’s visual point of view begins fairly removed from the action and loses its passivity over the course of the drama. Foroughi steadily widens the aspect ratio, which represents Ava’s tightening mental and structural confines. By the time the film reaches its fourth-wall-breaking conclusions, we are demanded to respond, dared to be impartial.
While the film reduces Leili Rashidi’s cruelly unwavering matron Ms. Dehkhoda to caricature to odd extent, it steadily complicates its stakes while keeping the impulses of each family member bracingly human. Foroughi makes the inheritance and passing on of parental consequences its own tragic flaw, with Ava all the more righteously justified for how she rejects her station and her parents tragically willful participants to systemic demands. If occasionally reductive as it looks outward, Foroughi creates a family unit of nuanced human and thematic ramifications.