The French film, part of the Competition programming at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival, is in the running for the $10,000 Herzfeld Competition Award.
Imminent blindness is an interesting existential topic to tackle in the fundamentally visual medium of film. In Ava, first-time feature director Léa Mysius visually plays with the theme without succumbing to the pull of literal representation.
Thirteen-year-old Ava has just found out that her retinitis pigmentosa has advanced more aggressively than previously expected: she will soon lose her night vision completely, followed by a decreased visual field and eventual blindness.
The car trip back from the ophthalmologist sets the tone for the remainder of the film. Ava’s young single mother cries and promises to make their vacation on the southwest coast of France “the best summer ever.” From the passenger seat, Ava’s inscrutable eyes belie an unreadable range of emotions she can’t seem to express. (Later, when asked why she doesn’t have a boyfriend, Ava will reply, “Because I’m mean,” a childlike simplification the audience is invited to see beyond.) She calls her mother’s tears “embarrassing” and later admits she is unable to cry.
Ava grapples with the news, coinciding with an already-fraught period in every girl’s life, by writing understandably-angsty diary entries, painting disturbing black-paint-spattered representations of tunnel vision and experimenting with dereliction — she steals a wolfish black dog from homeless traveler Juan, who is on the run from the police; she leaves her baby sister unattended while she’s meant to be babysitting, opting instead to practice walking blindfolded with the stolen Lupo as guide dog. Lupo, so black as to appear in silhouette, eventually brings Ava and Juan together, and as her coming-of-age journey is necessarily fast-tracked, she transfers her obsession for the dog to its owner.
While firmly rooted in reality, Ava’s brushes with surreality make it seem like the film is always just about to reveal that it was all just a dream. Our first introduction to Lupo is like something from a fairy tale — an ominous black dog traverses a sun-drenched beach populated with over-saturated, colorful sunbathers, bee-lining to a sleeping Ava who, like the audience, is at first not sure that what she’s seeing is real. A stylized beach crime spree later has a similar unreal quality, with mud-caked Ava and Juan holding up naked beach-goers for snacks and booze, their victims’ excess flesh jiggling with humorous abandon as they attempt escape. Mysius makes particularly good use of the disturbing nightmares that haunt Ava’s sleep in a Lynchian surrealist sequence, confirming that she is a director acutely adept at executing short set pieces.
Actress Noée Abita embodies Ava so thoroughly that it’s hard to believe the role wasn’t written specifically for her. Her eyes communicate more than her dialogue, even as they are increasingly unable to take anything in. As the film progresses, Ava stops covering her bathing-suited chest as she walks, spending much of the second act in the nude (the actress was 17 at filming, the legal age in France). Her diary becomes a log of sunrises and sunsets, a record of lost daylight and waning vision. The film’s colors grow less saturated as Ava’s vision declines, and the final third takes place almost entirely in the dark.
The audience is left with a simulated matching fogginess in the film’s ambiguous resolution. We never return to daylight, or to any of the settings that had become familiar in the film’s first half. Even the genre seems to flip from coming-of-age to heist film as Ava falls deeper into Juan’s embrace. The progression from quiet character study to action-packed crime drama is a smart experimental choice for a coming-of-age story that depicts a literal descent into darkness. But the narrative doesn’t ultimately cohere, and the audience is left adrift in a story that didn’t teach them in the first half how to read the second.
Then again, perhaps this discordance is, in fact, the most apt representation of a premature loss of innocence.
Go See It: Ava
- Thursday, Nov. 1 | 1:30 p.m. | Oriental Theatre Main