You are unlikely to come across a more involving, wry, strong-willed character this year than the eponymous heroine of “Wadjda.”
This is notable for several reasons. First, Wadjda is an 11-year-old Saudi girl played, in her film debut, by young Waad Mohammed. This is a breathtakingly assured, uniquely lived-in performance.
Second, “Wadjda” made history as the first full-length film helmed by a female Saudi director, Haifaa al-Mansour. This would be newsworthy on its own, but the film is also the first Saudi Arabian feature submitted for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration.
It is also very, very good.
Al-Mansour’s film opens with a surprising sight: worn-out, black Chuck Taylors. The wearer, Wadjda, is almost never seen without them, even at school. She is, says one character, a “spunky little girl,” and that is an apt description.
Wadjda is a rebel in an environment in which rebellion is frowned upon from virtually all corners (home, school, and beyond). But when she creates rock mix-tapes, refrains from wearing her head covering, and chastises an ever-surly driver for having no manners, she is merely being herself. Little does she know the power of these simple gestures.
There also is the matter of her gender. “Why are you laughing out loud?” asks the school’s principal. “You forget that women’s voices should not be heard by men outside.”
This is a running motif. Adult women like Wadjda’s mother (the wonderful Reem Abdullah) face many similar limitations, of course, even at home – Wadjda’s father is almost never there, and seeking another wife. (“Bear me a son and everything will be fine,” he explains.)
Gender plays a particularly important role when Wadjda announces her desire to buy the green bicycle she spotted for sale, and now covets. This does not go over well, except with Wadjda’s sweet best friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani).
“Here girls don’t ride bikes,” her mother shouts. “You won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike!” (In this atmosphere, a girl riding a bike “thinks she is a boy” – and that’s that.)
Wadjda’s goal of saving enough money to buy the green bike forms the crux of the film’s plot. When a Quran recitation competition offering a cash prize is announced, the generally poor student sees a chance to make her dream come true, and things begin to turn a bit formulaic. It culminates in a conclusion that is surprisingly cheery, almost unbelievably so.
In many ways, it is a recognizable coming-of-age film, but thanks to its location, its performances, and its back story, it breaks the limitations of that genre. (Unlike, say, the wildly overrated summer hit “The Way, Way Back.”) Here is a PG-rated film that offers audiences – especially adolescents close to Wadjda’s age – a small window into a world that may be very different from our own but features a character who is certainly relatable.
It is a brisk, funny, splendid creation, one that should bring international attention to its director and young star. And even the semi-happy ending feels earned. Wadjda is so likable that a “Bicycle Thief”- or “The Kid With a Bike”-style conclusion would prove overly devastating.
Ending on a positive note is perhaps a bolder choice.
The film includes a number of visually and emotionally resonant moments, a credit to al-Mansour’s talents. Perhaps the most memorable involves a large family tree hanging on the family’s wall.
Wadjda’s mother tells her not to bother looking for her own name – it includes only the men on her father’s side. Wadjda casually writes her name on a slip of paper, and tapes it to the tree.
When she later sees her name has fallen (or perhaps been taken off), she picks it up, puts it in her pocket, and walks on. It is an apt metaphor for a character who goes her own way.
3½ stars (Out of four)
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf
Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Running time: 98 minutes
Rating: PG for language, thematic elements and smoking.
The Lowdown: To make enough money for the green bicycle she desires, a strong-willed Saudi girl signs up for her school’s Quran recitation competition.