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ALI & AVA: 3 ½ STARS. “a lovely, joyful and warm character piece.”

“Ali & Ava,” a lovely and warm character piece starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook and now playing in theatres, is a study of opposites, of happiness and struggle, of love and loneliness.

Living in the West Yorkshire, England city of Bradford, Ali (Akhtar) is a music-obsessed Pakistani-British man, with a taste for punk rock and hip hop who manages several properties. He lives with his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia), but it is a marriage in name only. They’re separated but are staying “together” to appease their traditional families.

Ava (Rushbrook) is a recently widowed teacher’s assistant, mother to four kids, including the hot-headed Callum (Shaun Thomas), and grandmother to five. Her taste in music runs to country music and folk.

The thing that brings them together is Sofia (Ariana Bodorova), a young girl who lives in one of Ali’s apartments and goes to Ava’s school. She is new to the country and is having trouble fitting in. One day, after school, during a rainstorm, the kindly Ali offers Sofia a lift home. Ava comes along for the ride and sparks fly as he joshes her about her taste in music.

Over time their natural rapport gives way to romance, despite the disapproval of Callum, who still reveres his late, abusive father. Ali and Ava’s differences melt away as their romance blooms. Ali even admits respect for Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mama, You Been on My Mind.”

British writer-director Clio Barnard brings an almost documentary style intimacy to “Ali & Ava.”

This isn’t a rom com with finely appointed homes, exotic locations and snappily tailored clothes. It’s a social realist look at two people and their opposites-attract love story. Barnard’s camera is a fly on the wall, observing the highs and lows of Ali and Ava’s courtship without judgment. It’s an emotionally raw treatment, that allows the story’s empathy and warmth to shine. Never saccharine, it’s a British kitchen sink drama, without the disillusionment.

“Ali & Ava” is a slow burn romance. There are no huge moments or grand gestures, just a series of personal obstacles to be overcome in service of their relationship. The authentic chemistry shared by Akhtar and Rushbrook illuminates their character’s vulnerabilities and strengths, but, most importantly, their joy.

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