In an Iranian schoolyard, we listen in as a group of teenage girls gossip, brag, and try to outdo each-other. In the quiet of an apartment, we watch while one of them sneaks in phone calls while she figures her parents won’t hear. It’s a reminder: “girls will be girls”. It’s also a quiet set-up for a bigger question: “when will adults be adults?”

AVA is about a teenage girl of the same name in Iran – she’s played beautifully by Mahour Jabbari. She is a decent student, and keeps to a regimented routine. Like many girls her age around the world, she is curious about a boy, but her curiosity leads her mother to overreact. Her mother takes her to doctor to be sure she is still a virgin, and this irrational moment leads to Ava acting out. She is unable to keep her focus at school, begins harming herself, and struggles with her very existence.

This movie – the first feature from director Sadaf Foroughi – is a truly gorgeous glimpse at the confusion, uncertainty, and isolation of youth. Over and over again, the camera holds back and doesn’t show us everything we want to see. It forces us to pay attention not just to what the people in Ava’s life are saying, but how they are saying it. We want to look them in the eye, but the movie zeroes us in on the tension in their shoulders, or the passion in their hands.

It’s a story about deep emotional complexities. On the surface, AVA seems concerned by what is desired, and how that’s at odds with what is permitted…but it’s more than that. Ava herself finds ways to quietly rebel against permission, whether it’s her bright red sneakers, her experiments with make-up, or her bragging to her girlfriends about which boys she can get to like her.

Where it turns into more is when Ava begins to realize that her parents’ life might not have gone as planned way back when, and how she is now saddled with that burden. She begins to push back against the inequity of that, and rightfully so.

AVA is undeniably about the deeply conservative life lessons drilled into the heads of teenage girls in Iran, but it is likewise about the games every adult of authority plays using teenagers as the game pieces. These children are a reflection of the adults around them; the adults’ authority, the adults’ teaching. Since parents and teachers don’t want their misbehaviour reflecting badly on them – or underlining their own past decisions – they make selfish decisions, putting their own interests and reputations ahead of that of their children.

It’s a way of life that isn’t fair in the least, and as the titular character stares out at us while the film concludes, she seems to be asking us: When will this all end?