Starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah. Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour. STC. 98 min. Opens Oct. 4.
As the first feature to be directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia—a country with virtually no film culture and no cinemas, to boot—Wadjda doesn’t necessarily need to be good to count as a milestone. Indeed, the story of the film’s creation, which includes writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour’s efforts to shoot on the streets of Riyadh, strikes the same inspirational note as Wadjda’s story about an 10-year-old girl’s quest to get a bicycle. Yet Wadjda is too perceptive and pointed to be simply uplifting, and any potentially sentimental moments are undercut by tough-minded observations about gender, class, and family in the Arab world.
Al-Mansour’s movie boasts the same flinty attitude that Waad Mohammed exudes as the titular heroine, a proto-rebel who wears Chuck Taylors under her black abaya and bristles at the social strictures imposed upon her, including the idea that good girls don’t ride on two wheels. That she enters a Koran competition at school in hopes of using the prize money to buy a bike is one of the film’s slyest elements. More poignant is the lot of Wadjda’s mother, who fears that her husband plans to take a second wife and marginalize her and their daughter even further. Though the influence of Italian neorealism is clear in Wadjda’s unshowy style and generosity of spirit, this film remains a singular achievement for all the best reasons.