Director Léa Mysius makes an impressive debut with Ava, which respectfully and unblinkingly grants Ava’s wish to be seen before she goes blind.
Ava (Noée Abita) is 13 and about to become blind. When a doctor informs her that she’ll soon lose her eyesight, her reaction is not to cry ― not then, or at any point in Léa Mysius’ Ava. Instead, she impulsively turns her back on him and closes her eyes tight, as if ignoring the news will make it go away.
The diagnosis sets something off in Ava. She doesn’t spend her last summer with sight in the company of her mother and newborn sister. Instead, she opts to walk into the sea while blindfolded, steal a dog, and befriend the dog’s owner: an 18-year-old outcast named Juan (Juan Cano).
Léa Mysius’ invigorating debut uses the onset of blindness both as a source of genuine drama and as a conduit for the broader theme of growing up. Ava is afraid of losing control of her own identity when she loses her sight. She writes in her diary: “I’m scared to be told ‘you look like your mum’ when I can no longer see my face”. In one scene, she stares intently into a mirror while her mother, Maud (Laura Calamy), showers obliviously in the background. Ava scours her own face for clues to who she really is. She is determined to become the person she will be for the rest of her life before her sight goes ― as if losing the ability to see herself in the mirror will also take away her ability to define how others see her.
At the same time, Ava is afraid of not being seen at all, especially by her mother. Maud imperfectly struggles to balance her own happiness with the happiness of her daughter. After resolving to give Ava the best summer ever, Maud often forgets to fulfil that promise. She wanders off to flirt with men, or becomes too involved in her own distress over Ava’s diagnosis to realise what Ava needs. On the drive home from the doctor, Maud sobs for her daughter while Ava looks despondently out of the car window, trying to block out the sound of her mother’s tears. Neither of them realises, or is able to deliver, what the other requires in that moment.
Ava realistically depicts the disconnect between mother and daughter as Ava loses her sight. As Maud tells Ava about falling in love, we enter Ava’s subjective soundscape: the sound of Maud’s voice drifts away and is replaced with the voices of surrounding strangers as Ava eavesdrops on their conversation and tunes out her mother. Maud’s voice becomes a blur in the background. She is out of focus at the side of the frame as Ava looks elsewhere; Maud is so wrapped up in the story she’s telling that she is unaware that her daughter is ignoring her. This one scene means completely different things to both characters. Ava recognises this disconnect and feels her mother does not see her as she desperately longs to be seen. That longing leads Ava to look for excitement and companionship elsewhere. She finds it in sex and crime.
Noée Abita is strikingly young. Her lips jut out and are often partially open. Her head is surrounded by a halo of wispy baby hair, framing large, hungry eyes. She is impish in physicality; every movement is uncertain and impulsive. Hugging her knees, hiding her face behind her clothes, and holding tight to her backpack straps, she is unmistakably a child. It’s that childishness that makes the film’s portrayal of sexuality so disturbing.
Ava’s sight will disappear before she has the chance to appreciate it, and she’s determined to lose her innocence first. When Maud talks to her about sex, Ava covers her ears in disgust ― but only a few scenes later, Ava loses her virginity. While some films use their entire runtime to track the transition from girl to woman, Ava does so in the space of a single montage: Ava and Juan strip naked, cover themselves in grey paste, and use guns to comically chase a group of strangers on a nudist beach. The scene is a burst of cinematic energy, utilising split screen to arresting effect.
The playful, comedic tone in which Mysius directs the gun chase reflects Ava’s subjective experience. It stands out as surreal in a film that otherwise takes Ava’s experiences at face value. Ava and Juan’s behaviour is played for laughs; the strangers’ faces are unnaturally blank as they run away, because Ava is blissfully unaware of their potential fear. She is unable to see past the fun she is having in the moment. This aptly mirrors her process of coming-of-age: she lacks the foresight to see the consequences of the dangerous excitement that comes with growing up and gaining sexual experience. For example, Juan never becomes more than an object of desire because Ava neglects to see him as anything more.
In an attempt to be seen, understood, and treated with maturity, Ava exposes every part of herself. But the camera never objectifies Ava by lingering on her body, even though she often appears naked. Wide shots capture her whole body, connecting it with the natural environment around her rather than with sex. Mysius’ gaze is attuned to what Ava desires: to feel free and at one with nature through nakedness. Walking into the sea naked and blindfolded allows Ava to feel the water when she can no longer see it. When she meets Juan, Ava lifts her top to try and get his attention, but even that act is less a solicitation of sexual interest than it is merely an appeal for attention.
Ava may not get what she desires from the people around her, but Mysius ensures she gets it from us. Respectfully and unblinkingly, she grants Ava’s wish to be seen.