“Your mind is already polluted,” says Ms. Dehkhoda, the school principal, to a class of young Iranian girls. All they can do is nod while being punished for a crime they didn’t even commit: having sex. Using a horror story as a way to police young girls’ bodies is common in Iran, but for Ava (Mahour Jabbari), she’s tired of the hypocrisy. She finds out that her extremely strict mother wants to prevent any interaction with boys or questionable friends, despite getting pregnant with her before wedlock. Her mother and father think that they understand her, but how could they? She’s a 17-year-old girl trying to discover herself in a modern-day Tehran, and the shadow of Iran’s oppression is following her at every step.
AVA is loosely based on writer/director’s Sadaf Foroughi’s own coming of age story in Iran. In a grand debut, Jabbari plays the titular character, a frustrated 17-year-old who starts as a quiet, invisible presence, and turns into a rebellious scapegoat. Her mother, Bahar (Bahar Noohian), wants her to give up her studies in music for a safer career path; her father, Valid, may be on Ava’s side but he’s never around enough to support her. This leaves Ava and Bahar alone to butt heads over what is expected of a young Iranian woman.
Foroughi shows that she knows her film history. Her stunning frames mimic some of the all-time greats from Truffaut to Kar Kai. She approaches each scene with a sense of voyeurism and various off-kilter shots. Mirrors are strategically placed behind actors so that they are used to look at others but never at each other.
AVA feels like an Asghar Farhadi film because it’s quietly explosive. Its story is tightly knit and doesn’t need any melodramatic moments to make an impact. It’s through the adult women’s actions that we become appalled. Ms. Dehkhoda is a nasty woman who wears white gloves to protect herself from the girls’ “wretchedness.” Her intimidation makes the students report anything that she deems immoral, making the school even less of a safe place for young girls.
But Ava’s worst enemy is her mother, Bahar, a woman who desperately wants her daughter to achieve the same privileges she has. She forbids Ava from seeing her best friend, Melody, a fatherless child; she also has Ava visit a gynecologist to make sure she’s still a virgin after catching her hanging out with a boy. Eventually, you realize that Bahar is as much as a victim in this cruel cycle of patriarchal traditions. She must continuously prove herself in her male-dominated field, which leaves her exhausted.
AVA might take place in Iran, but the message is universal. Foroughi beautifully illustrates the frustrations of being a woman in an oppressive society. Ava and Bahar may have remarkably different viewpoints, but deep down, they’re suffering from the same malady. Not too often do we see an Iranian film starring and directed by women, but Ava is a good start for much-needed representation.