Circumstances alone make Wadjda a remarkable film. It's the first feature shot exclusively in Saudi Arabia, a country where cinemas have been banned since the mid-'80s. Its director is a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour, who often had to direct shots via walkie-talkie from inside a van, because she couldn't be seen working alongside men. It's already been submitted as the country's first-ever entry for the Academy Awards (the Saudi nominating committee had to fly to Dubai to see it).
These facts alone would make Wadjda worth seeing. Yet they're not what ultimately make the film extraordinary. It's that, on the most basic level, Wadjda is a wonderful piece of filmmaking. It's a tale that's delightful and insightful and gently transgressive, and Al-Mansour tells it with economy, lyricism and terrific warmth.
The story itself breaks no new ground: A 10-year-old girl named Wadjda dreams of owning a bike, a lovely emerald-green cruiser with handlebar streamers and a bell. Her good friend, a boy named Abdullah, has a bike of his own, and Wadjda wants to prove she can beat him in a race. "Losing to a girl will be a double loss," she promises him, in one of many lines that softly prod at gender oppression and unfair double standards. Wadjda's a cheeky wheeler-dealer—she weaves bracelets and sells them to her classmates, and for a fee she'll deliver letters from girls to boys—but she doesn't have enough money for that gorgeous steed. (Never mind that it's considered scandalous and dishonorable for a girl to ride a bike.) So when her school announces a Koran-recitation competition with significant money at stake, the not-so-studious but damned determined Wadjda buys a video-game study guide and sets to work, all the while surreptitiously meeting with Abdullah to practice her pedaling skills.
It's not novel for a film to view a repressive society through the lens of a child, but young actress Waad Mohammed has the expressiveness and self-possession to make Wadjda a complex character, rather than just a narrative instrument. She's a headstrong schemer, a pint-size rebel with an ever-mischievous look on her face. Unlike her more obedient classmates, Wadjda arrives home from school and dances around her bedroom to Grouplove's "Tongue Tied." When the school principal asks her to wear plain black shoes, Wadjda simply inks in the stars on her purple-laced Chuck Taylors. With her balance of innocence and impishness, Mohammed—who, according to Al-Mansour, sang a Justin Bieber song during her audition—carries much of the film.
But the movie is more than just a portrait of an exceptional girl, and it's here Wadjda establishes itself as something great. In some ways, it's a slice-of-life picture, an anthropological document about a society alien to most Americans. We see blocky, sand-colored buildings and dusty streets; we observe Wadjda's mother at the mall, where she must try on a dress in the restroom; we watch the preparation of meals. Yet Wadjda transcends these details—it's not some mere cultural curiosity. By the same token, it's more than an issue drama, thanks to Al-Mansour's subversive yet never strident storytelling. She lets her characters speak: "A woman's voice is her nakedness," says Wadjda's principal, a severe taskmaster with perfectly plucked eyebrows and 5-inch stilettos peeking out beneath her abaya. Later, one of Wadjda's most dutiful classmates, a plump and homely girl, is scolded by the gum-smacking religion teacher for showing off pictures of her recent wedding to a 20-year-old man. Photos are not allowed in school.
Many of the film's sharpest observations about Saudi Arabia's systemic misogyny arrive courtesy of Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdullah, a Saudi soap star). As Wadjda schemes and studies, taking things into her own hands, her mother is powerless and lost. Unable to bear a son, she worries her husband may take a second wife. She works at a school far from home, and her driver—women in Saudi Arabia aren't allowed to drive—is hopelessly crotchety, but she's bound to him. The mother carries her trials in her body, and the way she moves languorously from task to task is tragic. Equally devastating are the moments of humor: When Wadjda falls off her friend's bike, her mother shrieks, "Your virginity!"
Heartbreaking yet hopeful, Wadjda may not reinvent the wheel. But it pedals astoundingly well.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: Wadjda is rated PG. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.