“I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding–not even that–no. Just for some recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.” -Tennessee Williams, from Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks / USA / 1962)
BY ANDRES SOLAR
The transcendent energy of Iranian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature derives from her adroit use of composition, symbolism, and timing. More than a “coming of age” story, it’s an unsentimental, urgent song of youth, and it movingly shows (rather than tells) its themes of time, power, and rebellion.
Ava is a Tehrani high-schooler who, like most teens, goes on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as she experiments with tender love, learns the limits of peer loyalty, and tests the bounds of home and school rules. Foroughi wisely observed that a “troubled teen” story set in Tehran could illuminate myriad aspects of Iranian life. Going further, she gives us vast, universal sociological areas to explore.
The girl and her best friend Melody go to the same school, and both are music students. Ava is a talented violinist and Melody a burgeoning pianist and her friend’s rehearsal partner. For the director, the competitive cloister of classical music provides rich and subtle symbolism.
Early on, Ava’s reflection is framed in an oval mirror in her room. The teen merely tidies up her bed, putting her violin in its case and placing the cover on her tick-tocking metronome. The brief scene is entirely symbolic of the overarching themes: the girl stowing away her violin; stopping the movement and sound of the metronome and putting the cover over it; and, most foretelling, the pyramidal metronome at rest atop her bed, reflected in the mirror.
The symbolism continues throughout the titular character’s struggles, and one feels her soul is drawn taut like a violin string, longing for stimulation so it can sing. The youngster yearns to shear away the direct and indirect burdens of Sharia strapped to her back like her blood-colored book bag.
Production design here is lovely, and Foroughi’s color palette—scarlet Sharia contrasting with pastel mints and deep blues—works to emphasize atmosphere, moods, and story throughout. The oval mirrors in the mise-en-scène, like egg-shaped time portals, reflect both Ava’s future and her parents’ past, while highlighting the characters’ introspective challenges.
Foroughi places the camera purposefully and thoughtfully. When the girl’s mother scolds her loudly on the landing of Melody’s apartment building, you experience it from an elevated camera across the street. In order to diminish the impact of this particular conflict, the director keeps the audience at a distance, but that’s not always the case. When Melody applies mascara to Ava’s lashes, Foroughi takes you in for extreme close-ups on the teen’s eyes. So her priority in the first and second acts seems to be preservation of a gentle approach to her characters and a subdued tone.
To that end, she often uses unconventional compositions. She frames the characters, in a few two- and three-shots, from the shoulder down to about their knees. Especially when all the actors in a shot are women or girls—and with the aid of the hijabs and other loose-fitting clothing—the technique puts the characters on a more even playing field. By not showing their faces and by diminishing the perception of height, Foroughi de-emphasizes differences in age and attitude. There’s dialogue, but who’s talking? The subtly purposeful confusion is highly effective within each scene and reserves the more direct, conventional compositions for greater impact elsewhere in the film.
Ava only falls short in one area, and that’s the writer-director’s decision to make the movie almost entirely humorless. As usual, this leads to a self-serious note that plays once or twice over its otherwise impeccable tone. But Foroughi deftly does include lighthearted, upbeat stanzas, mostly via Ava’s father. He’s a pleasant man, reasonable, even sweet, and a foil to the harsh bitterness and deep-seated sternness of the mother.
As an outsider, I felt that the behaviors of several characters seemed motivated by sheer sadism. It’s unlikely that Foroughi herself would object to the question of to what degree Persian and other Iranian cultures value sadism, though it would certainly constitute a taboo topic. For that matter, what role does it play in society at large? To what degree does sadism anywhere breed masochism?
The people depicted here also appear highly susceptible to power trips. Even people with relatively little actual power. It’s yet another area where the voices of sociologists are needed. Stateside, of course, we’re experiencing the consequences of power trips at the highest levels. We might be beginning even to gauge the breadth and depth of the damage that can be done when malignant narcissism and pathological avarice are given the reins of government. Like the proverbial poem that’s about a snake and hence must avoid only one word (“snake”), Foroughi shows maturity and clever insight by not once mentioning Sharia or Islam by name.
In so many ways, Ava is profound and refreshing. For those of us who have never had the pleasure of visiting Tehran, witnessing the civility and functionality of the city (outside of the institutions of family and school) runs counter to every notion put forth by cynical American propaganda. It affords us an orrery with which to explore power dynamics and the ways in which they affect the human being who is sensitive, spirited, and vulnerable—personified by Ava herself—the way peaceful, social human beings probably should be.
Foroughi asks that we consider whether the teen’s crises arose from inner or outer causes. The facile answer is: “She’s disturbed or neurotic,” implying that the pathology comes from within. But this sharp story plainly shows how a society’s tendencies toward institutionalized sadism and personal power trips work against souls like Ava and, ultimately, against peace (of mind, of the household, of the nation, of the world). That this holds true in Iran, the U.S., and every other place on Earth is proven through the universality of this film.
The depth and urgency of this film might catch you (happily) off guard. Unlike the whip-crackers she depicts, Foroughi’s is a quiet power of the type that’s most effective across the ages. Her hand is delicate as she guides us through struggles of fierce teenagedom, hypocritical parenting, and plaguing authoritarianism.
4 of 5 stars