Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Ava’ and ‘Under the Tree’

A distinctive shot from Ava, opening in San Francisco on Friday

Most parents have experienced it, or will experience it eventually: those testy teenage years when nothing you say is right, every decision you make is wrong, and your child is dead set on doing things their way come hell or high water because, damn it, they know best.

This is not a uniquely western phenomenon. In Ava (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, July 13 – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled), an Iranian schoolgirl negotiates her way through high school despite strict parents, even stricter school officials, and — looming unseen and unmentioned in the background – the guardians of the Islamic Republic’s morals.

When she’s not practicing her violin, Ava (Mahour Jabbari) spends her spare time hanging out with friends and doing what teenage girls the world over have always done — talk about boys. Ava is convinced she can get a date with her piano accompanist, Nima; pal Shirin isn’t convinced. Though the stakes consist of little more than bragging rights, a bet is duly made.

Even within the relatively liberal confines of Tehran’s comfortable middle-class neighborhoods, however, a girl spending time alone with a boy is a recipe for scandal – and Ava compounds matters by providing an unconvincing cover story for her entirely chaste visit with Nima.


Matters worsen when the school’s white-gloved principal Ms. Dehkhoda (Leili Rashidi) gets wind of the tête-à-tête and responds with a classroom lecture on loose morals. Demanding that such activities need to be reported to her tout de suite, Ms. Dehkoda gets immediate results and Ava’s academic career is suddenly in jeopardy.

Directed by newcomer Sadaf Foroughi, Ava uses unusual but effective stylistic touches to heighten tension during its most dramatic scenes. Foroughi pulls in on her actors’ hands as they fidget nervously or wave expressively; she also leans heavily on shallow focus, with actors in the foreground seen as indistinct blurs while the camera draws attention to those in the background (or, on several occasions, to the mirrored reflections of the actors in the foreground).

Intentionally blurry shots may seem like an overly precious attempt to do something different for the sake of doing something different, but when Foroughi’s final shot locks onto Ava’s condemnatory, defiant stare everything becomes crystal clear: change is coming to Iran — and it’s not going to come from sanctions, bombs, or propaganda, but from Iran’s young people, including its women. If you doubted Iran capable of producing feminist cinema, doubt no longer.

‘Under the Tree’

Under the Tree: a disturbing drama about an extremely troubled family 

I was looking forward to Iceland’s Undir trénu (Under the Tree, opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza in San Francisco on July 13), but alas: the film is a letdown.

Marketed as a deadpan black comedy, it’s actually a disturbing drama about an extremely troubled family (son #1 has committed suicide, son #2 has serious marital problems, and mother is bitter about everything) and a tree overhanging a neighbor’s property. Unpleasant characters making unbelievably bad decisions and an ending the viewer can see coming a mile away render Under the Tree an unfortunate misfire — but at least Daniel Bjarnason’s pulsating, dissonant score is memorable.