‘Ava’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

A high school out of hell.

An Iranian teenager rebels against her claustrophobic society in Sadaf Foroughi's insightful feature debut.

The tagline for Ava, the feature debut of writer-director Sadaf Foroughi, emphasizes the traumatic invasion of an Iranian girl’s privacy when her mom takes her to an OB-GYN to make sure she’s still a virgin. But the film and its 16-year-old heroine are a lot more complex than that. Ava’s rebellion is against more than her parents’ mistrust; it’s about the cage of societal norms in Iran that stifles female creativity and self-expression. The clarity with which Foroughi presents the situation makes it easy for international audiences to follow the unfolding drama with its rising stakes.

As moodily played by young Mahour Jabbari, Ava Vali is a middle-class girl absorbed in her teenage world. Her mother is an overworked doctor and her father, an architect, is often away. In this one-child family, she is the apple of Daddy’s eye but viewed with suspicion bordering on paranoia by her control-freak mother (Bahar Noohian.) When Ava discovers she’s good at playing the violin and wants to pursue music, Mom frets that it isn’t a career path and tries to redirect her studies. Ava pushes back, especially since she has a crush on the boy who accompanies her on the piano, Nima.

Despite attending a highly regimented girls’ school in a full black veil, Ava’s concerns are surprisingly similar to teenage girls anywhere else in the world — boys, makeup and symbols of individuality like red sneakers and four-letter words. She bets with the competitive Shirin that she can go out on a date with Nima and, using her best friend Melody as go-between, she manages to spend an hour with him in the park. But her mom finds out and all hell breaks loose, including that humiliating trip to the gynecologist’s office.

Ava is still a virgin, but now the rift between her and her mother is gigantic, and not only over sex. Mrs. Vali also gratuitously insults Melody’s mother because she is separated from her husband, causing friction between the two daughters and contributing to Ava’s increasing isolation at school.

Mrs. Vali is certainly unenlightened, but the real upholder of the status quo is the puritanical high school principal Ms. Dehkhoda, played with memorable glee by Leili Rashidi as a wonderful villainess. A leering white-gloved witch, she checks the backpacks of the girls she wants to harass and gives her pets and informers special privileges. “You are under continual assessment,” she warns over the loudspeakers like Big Sister, urging them to report the slightest misconduct of their classmates. Cautioning the students against their animalistic desires, she tells the horror story of a girl who tried to get rid of something in the washroom -- probably a made-up scare story: “Your mind is already polluted!” she concludes.

Wielding her absolute power to expel any girl who dares to raise her head, Ms. Dehkhoda helps create some of the social horrors Mrs. Vali sees every day in her clinic, like a girl wandering the streets all night, screaming. All this social backstory blends smoothly into the main narrative that traces Ava’s rebellion and ostracism.

Young actress Jabbari brings real intensity to Ava’s rebellion, but the character comes across as maniacal and obsessive, fixated on winning her bet with Shirin and ready to hurt herself for no reason she can define. She is also a liar. Though one can sympathize with her teenage neuroses and mistreatment by the adults, there is no real hook in her personality for the audience to identify with, no winning smile as in I Am Taraneh,15, no dreamy idealism to root for. The ending is left deliberately, unsatisfyingly ambiguous, but whatever her fate may be, in or out of the system, it doesn’t matter that much to the viewer.

The film’s other problem is its rhythm. It includes too much thinking and waiting and violin practice in real time. The minimalist decor works with cinematographer Sina Kermanizadeh’s extremely clean lighting, set off by rigorous fixed framing and blurred-out background characters. Classical music including Beethoven and Purcell reinforces the refined atmosphere.

Production company: Sweet Delight Pictures
Cast: Mahour Jabbari, Bahar Nouhian, Leili Rashidi, Vahid Aghapour, Shayeste Sajadi, Sarah Alimardani, Houman Hoursan
Director-screenwriter: Sadaf Foroughi  
Producers: Sadaf Foroughi, Kiarash Anvari
Director of photography: Sina Kermanizadeh
Production designer: Siamak Karinejad
Editor: Kiarash Anvari
World sales: Mongrel International
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery/Next Wave)

103 minutes