Hot on the heels of Ladybird comes this French coming-of-age story that mines some of the same territory explored by Greta Gerwig in her Academy Award-nominated effort before veering off into something quite unique and distinctly European. Helmed by first-time feature director Léa Mysius, Ava is a stylish, accomplished exploration of mother-daughter relationships and teenage sexuality that also serves as a stunning reminder of the textual possibilities of 35mm film, with Mysius and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume using the format to spectacular effect, capturing the rich saturated colours of the Medoc region on the Atlantic coast. It is this beachside community where 13-year-old Ava (Noée Abita) and her mother Maud (Laure Calamy) have headed for the summer, a holiday of special significance for Ava in light of news that her degenerative eye condition has advanced more quickly than expected and she will soon go blind.
The opening scene beautifully captures a seaside world far removed from the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera, a sweeping overview of a beach full of life as we follow a dog making its way through the throngs. Myriad scenarios play out on the sand as the holiday-makers of all shapes and sizes sunbathe, swim and splash about, beach towels and umbrellas laid out haphazardly to mark the tiny personal territory of each individual. This is a beachside world populated by real people and despite so much going on, we follow our canine friend as he continues to wander along the shoreline until he happens upon a young girl dozing in the sun, the dish of hot chips resting on her stomach proving irresistible. Ava wakes with a start and finds herself mesmerised by the jet-black dog with wolfish features that ultimately leads her into a series of adventures way beyond what Maud intended when she declared that they would have the ‘best summer ever’.
Understandably angry and frightened about her diagnosis, Ava takes out her frustrations on Maud, a working-class single mother who, to be fair, is genuinely distraught at the prospect of Ava going blind. However, having had Ava at a young age, Maud wants to have some fun before it’s too late despite also having an infant daughter. It is Ava’s disregard for her sister when charged with looking after her, along with her mother’s budding romance with Tete (Daouda Diakhate), a younger man she meets on the beach, which causes tension between Ava and Maud. After rejecting the advances of the clean-cut son of her sand-surfing instructor, Ava’s feeble attempt to steal the dog – which she names Lupo – leads her to the animal’s owner Juan (Juan Cano), a mysterious figure she discovers injured and hiding out on a deserted stretch of beach. Although she is repulsed by her mother’s sexual shenanigans, Ava is becoming increasingly aware of her own sexuality and there will no doubt be some portentous puritans who will decry the depictions of Ava naked and engaged in a sexual relationship, even if Abita was 17 years of age when the film was shot. As the relationship between Ava and Juan blossoms, they embark on a humorous robbery spree, holding up nudists on the beach before they skip town on a stolen motorcycle, Lupo sandwiched between them.
The tone of the film changes in the final 30 minutes or so, which unfolds within the Gypsy community from which Juan has been exiled. Ava infiltrates a wedding at the camp in a bid to retrieve some of Juan’s belongings and the whole scenario takes a little too long to play out, but this is probably the only fault in what is an otherwise accomplished debut for the director and star. It is easy to understand why Ava is so willing to embark of such adventures given the limitations her prognosis will invariably bring and, within that context, Mysius has crafted an imaginative, witty and visually creative film that that perfectly encapsulates the confusion of growing up.