Since we first heard about Elias’ Ayla back in 2015 or so, the film has been on our radar of must-see pictures. And now, the release is finally upon us, with Freestyle Digital Media having picked up the North American VOD and digital release rights. So, is Ayla worth the wait, or is it a let down that we’ve hyped up a little too much in our anticipation?
In terms of plot, Ayla centres on Nicholas Wilder’s desperate and lost Elton. Why’s he so desperate and lost, you ask? Why, that’s because he’s still longing to be reunited with the sister who died when she was just four years of age. 30 years later and Elton begins to see what he believes to be the adult version of his sister – as played by genre fave Tristan Risk – somehow back in the land of the living. Could this really be the sibling he’s spent so long grieving for, is it merely a case of grief driving a desolate, desperate man to convince himself that what he so badly wants to be true is indeed really happening, or is it something entirely more sinister? Either way, it’s safe to say that Elton has gotten more than he bargained for in every possible way.
The first thing that will strike you about Alya is the frankly stunning style Elias uses to convoy his tale, with lingering, lonely shots masterfully used to amplify the narrative of what we see playing out. As for performances, Nicholas Wilder is absolutely breathtaking as he takes centre-stage as Elton. Wilder has previously worked with writer/director Elias on Gut, and here he only further marks himself out as a serious player to keep an eye on. As poor Elton, Wilder excels as he puts in an emotional performance that has you both feeling for this tortured soul and simultaneously worrying for his very sanity. Clinging on to an impossible dream, Elton experiences a whole host of emotions; from self-harming and intense depression, to the utter euphoria on his face at seeing the adult version of his apparent sister emerging from the shadows of the woods.
As the titular Ayla, Tristan Risk gives an incredible performance that fits perfectly with the restrictions of the character. Throughout the film, we see Ayla depicted as a mute of sorts, meaning that for the character to be taken seriously then it would take a special talent to do so. And that’s where Tristan Risk was an inspirational choice for the role. With a background in performance and dance, Risk uses her body in a way that conveys a whole voice of its own. In addition to the visceral, instinctive side of Ayla, Tristan also brings a sense of wide-eyed child-like awe to her at times as she comes across as seeing the modern world for the very first.
Away from the two figures who find themselves taking up the bulk of the action, Ayla has a marvellous cast dotted throughout. It may be minimal in numbers and scale, but the talent is plentiful. Fan favourite Dee Wallace finds herself playing the mother of both Elton and Ayla, and she brings a mixed bag of feelings to the story; part of her wanting to help her son to finally get over the loss of his sister, the other side of her showing motherly concern and a more logical approach to proceedings, and then a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, her daughter is somehow back. Then there’s D’Angelo Midili, who is another who shines as he plays the younger brother to Elton and Ayla. While his brother may be clinging on to the idea that their long-dead sister is now alive and well, Midili’s James is no-nonsense in making his feelings known that he thinks this whole concept is completely batshit crazy. Throw in some great supporting turns from Sarah Schoofs (who also appeared in Elias’ Gut) and Bill Oberst Jr., and you have a cast that delivers the highest of quality at every turn.
Ayla is an elegant, thoughtfully shot picture that is held together by some stunning performances and a script which is clever and well constructed throughout. In terms of tone, there’s feelings of a classic ghost story of yesteryear mixed with almost a childish optimism brought about by simply wanting something to be so true. Make no mistake though, this is a film about grief and what it can push us to do and to believe. And ultimately, that it something that so many of us will be able to relate to on at least some level.
Ayla is a deliberately paced effort which will have you hanging on its every word. Trust us when we say this could well be a true hidden gem of 2018, and it’s most certainly worth checking out as soon as you get the opportunity.
AYLA / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ELIAS / STARRING: NICHOLAS WILDER, TRISTAN RISK, DEE WALLACE, D’ANGELO MIDILI, SARAH SCHOOFS, BILL OBERST JR. / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW