They won’t spoil our summer.
Knowing your sight will leave you prematurely is a tough pill to swallow. Being told at age thirteen that the process had sped up to the point where all night vision would be gone by summer’s end is nothing short of devastating. Unfortunately this is the news Ava (Noée Abita) must cope with as vacation begins. It’s a sobering reality she confronts with steely resolve as her mother Maud (Laure Calamy) cries on the car ride home. The hope, however, is that these next few weeks can be worth remembering—a last hoorah to hold onto once Ava is left with nothing but blackness. But Maud’s idea of “fun” is going to the beach with young stud Tété (Daouda Diakhaté‘s) while her daughter is left fending for herself.
This isn’t altogether bad, though. Ava enjoys time alone and the freedom to practice what blindness will bring. Her young mind has visions of service dogs and walking sticks so she begins tapping with one of the latter while stealing a canine from a juvenile delinquent named Juan (Juan Cano). So when Ava should be sand sailing, she actually blindfolds herself and walks—sometimes at great heights with danger she steadfastly ignores. When she should be watching her infant sister with Mom out gallivanting, she’s taking the giant black dog to the coast before stripping naked to feel the tide wash upon her skin with the four senses she’ll have left. Here’s a child by herself, figuring out how to reconcile sexual maturation against her impending handicap.
Writer/director Léa Mysius‘ debut film Ava is very much a coming of age tale in this way—a very good one at that. The opening three-quarters of its runtime show a shy girl forcing herself to open up to a world she soon won’t be able to see. This summer becomes a crash course of sorts in extroversion and trust before her life suddenly finds itself needing both to survive. It leads to a volatile shift in Ava’s relationship with Maud as her resentment towards being left alone out of selfishness rather than education proves painfully obvious. It leads to an adventure wherein she can still feel useful during the day despite being frozen at night to move amongst shadows. And with Juan’s help, “fun” can be had.
The older boy doesn’t initially warm up to her as his vagrant is constantly having run-ins with locals and the beach’s new mounted police jokingly labeled the Nazgûl in homage to The Lord of the Rings. He’d rather be left alone with his dog and pining over an old flame than deal with this girl always hanging around. But in a time of need, Ava is there. She proves herself to be more than a rich tourist watching the local “flavor” for tabloid excitement. They discover themselves to be kindred spirits: introverts unafraid to engage the public sphere on their terms rather than its. So of course they’ll go running around the beach, naked and covered in clay, with guns drawn to rob everyone in their path.
That sounds funny because it is. The film is full of humor that disarms us so we can move closer to the characters. But it isn’t without drama since Juan is on the run thanks to a family squabble and Ava’s unforgettable nightmares can be presented via imagery of her mother orgasming and her baby sister being shot in the street by police. The latter is such a visceral vignette that we wonder if more of what we’ve seen is fantasy too. Why for instance does the dog always seem to be running free despite also always being attached to a leash in Juan’s hand? How does Ava and Juan get away with holding people up for so long when the two Nazgûl appear so omniscient otherwise?
The easy answer to both is that Mysius does what she needs to do for the story to remain interesting. She makes the daytime chaos electric because she knows each night will gradually grow darker until Ava can no longer move with confidence. The dog and Juan for that matter are also keenly used as fodder for the girl’s gradually disintegrating dynamic with her mother. They allow Maud to goof about while coaxing her daughter to be sexually active (“I’d rather you waited, but who am I to stop you when I started young too?”) as well as supply her the means to be angry and worried when Ava doesn’t come home at night. So much of what happens is contextually relevant to their continuously changing rapport.
You could say Ava is very much a movie about a girl exiting her mother’s shadow, of coming to grips with adulthood and independence early due to the ruthless nature of her illness. I wish it stayed this way too because that drama is where the movie truly shines: the overly outgoing and emotional mother opposite the pragmatic machinations of a quiet daughter. Instead, however, the girl’s adventures shift from rebellion to escape. Maud is left in the rearview as Juan becomes Ava’s focal point moving forward. The change is good at first thanks to their romance building out of the beach setting and their alienation from it. But then it turns the whole into a completely different film with wedding espionage and shaking the law.
It’s one thing to portray Ava’s maturation learning from these experiences, but Mysius doesn’t provide herself the time to do so. Instead we quite literally leave the beach and Maud behind to start anew in a different world. The film ultimately feels as though it’s the end of one story and the beginning of another. It’s the aftermath of a diagnosis and the start of a life carrying on despite it. But the doctor’s visit arrives too abruptly with the affair between Ava and Juan proving extremely rushed. We don’t know anything about Ava and Maud outside of this uniquely trying scenario nor do we witness what happens with Ava and Juan outside of the constraints forced upon them. We receive a middle in need of purpose.
Thankfully it’s an effective middle that has us wondering about what came before and after. It has us projecting ourselves upon Ava and Maud as they confront an impossible reality and Ava and Juan as they seek to break free from convention and the past for a future of endless possibilities. So while the plot feels slight by the time the credits roll, the characters never do. We know each and every one of them through their actions and reactions regardless of context. We understand their desires and their refusal to conform whether it’s Maud chasing a much younger man or Juan embracing the willing partnership of a minor seeking normalcy through adventurous pursuits. Ava in turn faces her struggle with wide-eyed confidence because it’s now or never.
courtesy of MUBI