Opening in a blaze of sunshine on France’s west coast, Ava‘s packed beaches burst with energy. Shot on 35mm, the first sequence in Léa Mysius’ debut often feels like a Martin Parr photograph brought to life. In vibrant, highly-saturated hues, bronzed bodies in bright swimwear appear against the golden sand and turquoise sea. The detached long-shot is simultaneously grotesque and enthralling – people apply lotion to one another’s bodies, or stuff their faces with fries and ice cream, while children pee in the sea. The minimalist, drone-like soundtrack undercuts any sense of ‘happy’ families, ushering in an air of unease which crystallises when a large, black dog enters the frame; a deathly omen amongst the blissfully-ignorant revellers.
The dog finds his way to Ava (Noée Abita), a local thirteen year-old who has not yet come to terms with her burgeoning adolescence. Wearing an understated bathing suit, she awakes from her nap in the midday sun to find the dog eating her fries. Immediately taking an interest in the animal, she chases him back to his owner, Juan (Juan Cano), who has drawn a crowd for loudly arguing with another man. Before long, two police officers on horseback escort Juan and the dog away. The officers’ inky black horses and dark, imposing uniforms are the second omen of imminent doom within moments of Ava‘s opening. This is not going to be an average coming-of-age, summer flick.
The omens are quickly revealed to be a metaphor for Ava’s health, as she discovers she is going blind much sooner than her optometrists predicted. She will lose her night vision within the next few months, and her daylight sight will deteriorate shortly afterwards. Her mother, Maud (Laure Calamy), promises to make this the best summer of her life, but Ava’s idea of an ideal holiday differs radically from her mother’s plans. Determined to cope without her sight, Ava sets out to re-capture the dog and train herself to feel, hear and smell her way around in the darkness to come. During her training, she’ll find herself drawn in by Juan’s vulnerable rebellion; letting her sexual desires surface, while learning how to embrace her new body, as well as cope with her visual impairment.
Mysius’ handling of Ava’s sexual awakening feels well-earned, and absolutely feminist. Abita’s performance inflects the titular character with a daring impulsivity, and her initial shyness rapidly gives way to increasingly brazen behaviour. In the opening sequences, Ava wears a one-piece swimming costume and keeps her arms crossed over her chest and body. She tries to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, while judgementally questioning her mother’s bare skin and flirtations with Tété (Daouda Diakhaté). As Ava’s eyesight wanes and her attraction to Juan grows, she opens herself up for new experiences. She fearlessly strips at a secluded part of the beach, with a glimmer of danger in her eyes. The whole film resonates with a sense of living fully before it’s too late.
Initially this liberation is all for her – Ava feels the waves on her naked body, and asserts her presence in the face of the sea. As she crawls out of the water, she is re-born into a new, chaotic and transitory world. Ava confidently flashes her breasts to get Juan’s attention, and completes her transformation in a spectacular beach-heist sequence with her boyfriend. Covering their faces and bodies in green-tinged clay, and donning tribal-looking headwear out of twigs and sticks, Ava and Juan terrorise picnicking sunbathers for their food and drink. Captured against the bright blue sky, the young (and practically naked) Bonnie and Clyde appear as surreal moving sculptures across the landscape. The beach’s rocks and structures morph into imposing architectural forms, and turn the once all-too-real beach into an unpredictable playground. Ava really does seem to be having the summer-of-her-life, living out a carefree fantasy in the first flushes of attraction.
Ava loses some of its bizarre momentum during the final third, but its established bold aesthetics and nuanced characterisations of mother and daughter help to hold the audience’s suspense until the end, despite a turn to more conventional methods of storytelling. It is disappointing that Calamy’s Maud does not feature during the denouement, as her honest and uninhibited interactions with Ava best encapsulate the horrifying reality of her daughter’s predicament, as well as the heart of the film. This is a coming-of-age tale with a bitter twist in the end, but Ava celebrates its protagonist’s resolve and attitude towards life, rather than wallowing in the darkness. Ava isn’t going down without a fight, and there’s no way that her impairment is going to stop her from living life on her terms.