The debut feature from Lea Mysius, who only graduated from Paris’ La Femis film school a few years ago, Ava is a sensual, accomplished but awkward study of teen female sexuality, told through the eyes of a headstrong 13-year-old protagonist Ava (impressive discovery Noee Abita) who’s about to go blind. After a captivating start, especially in its depiction of the fractious relationship between Ava and her single mother (Laure Calamy), the tinges of surrealism give way to outright weirdness, verging on the ridiculous, as Ava turns badass and goes on a third-act crime spree with her older boyfriend. Moreover, the depiction of a minor having sex and the young lead’s frequent nudity may trouble some observers, even if Abita herself was a legal (at least in France) 17 years of age when the film was shot.
Compared to, say, Marielle Heller’s recent American indie The Diary of a Teenage Girl or, to go back several years, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001), this lacks moral nuance and complexity, but Mysius’ technique is unquestionably stylish and confident, and she coaxes strong performances from inexperienced and seasoned cast alike.
Shot on increasingly rare 35mm stock by DP and co-screenwriter Paul Guilhaume, the film at least has a visual luster, intense palette and tactile quality that meshes seamlessly with the subplot about the protagonist’s impending loss of sight. In an early scene, an ophthalmologist tells Ava she’s one of the unlucky few to get early-onset retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that starts off with reduced vision in low light and a shrunken field of vision before full blindness sets in.
Understandably angry and frightened, Ava takes out her frustrations on her mother Maud (Calamy), a blowsy but likeable working-class woman who keeps trying to keep Ava’s spirits during their summer vacation by the sea. At the same time, Maud, who clearly had Ava at a young age herself, still wants to have some fun before it’s too late, and even though she has an infant daughter in addition to Ava, she strikes up a summer romance with Tete, a younger African man she meets on the beach.
Ava is repulsed by her mother’s sexuality, and even more cross when she gets saddled babysitting her little sister. Mysius and Guilhaume’s screenplay subtly evokes the oscillating love-hate relationship between pubescents and parents of the same sex, with vicious insults coming moments after tender expressions of affection — for instance in a scene where Maud helps Ava put on makeup and a pretty top before a date with a local teenage boy.
Although she shares a kiss with the aforementioned boy, Ava is more aroused by a slinky-hipped Spanish gypsy named Juan, who is about 18 and whom she keeps seeing around town, usually getting into trouble with the law. Almost of equal interest is Juan’s jet-black dog she names Lupo, a wolfish creature whom Ava steals from Juan for a while and who keeps bringing her back to Juan, even after the latter has retrieved his hound. Eventually, they all become a petit gang of three once Juan and Ava become lovers, tearing around the Medoc, where the film was shot, on a stolen motorcycle with Lupo sandwiched between his two human companions. They embark on a spree of supposedly comic armed robbery, holding up tourists on the beach with a shotgun.
It’s around this point that Mysius loses control of the tone, and the wayward direction of the last half hour, which unfolds mostly at a gypsy wedding and goes on 15 minutes too long, suggests difficulty finding resolution, a common problem with first films. Similarly, the heavy-handed use of the color black as a symbol of Ava’s blindness, but also sexuality and the creeping tide of Fascism, is somewhat jejune. At least the team resisted using a burst of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s 1967 classic “Bonnie and Clyde,” which a lesser film would have favored. Instead, one of the film’s emotional highlights is an impromptu dance from Ava to a burst of tacky Europop played through an iPhone, a joyous moment that makes the film feel like a French cousin to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Florencia Di Concilio’s eerie score is another treat, as are the tunes selected by music supervisor Martin Caraux.
Production companies: F Comme Film, Trois Brigands Productions
Cast: Noee Abita, Laure Calamy, Juan Cano, Tamara Cano
Director: Lea Mysius
Screenwriters: Lea Mysius, Paul Guilhaume
Producers: Jean-Louis Livi, Fanny Yvonnet
Director of photography: Paul Guilhaume
Production designer: Esther Mysius
Costume designer: Elisa Ingrassia
Editor: Pierre Deschamps
Music: Florencia Di Concilio
Music supervisor: Martin Caraux
Casting: Judith Chalier, Francois Guignard
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)