WADJDA (PG) A 10-year-old girl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), sporting Chuck Taylor hightops and living in the suburbs of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yearns for her first bicycle so that she can race her best friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Due to conservative social and religious pressures, family, friends and neighbors repeatedly discourage Wadjda from making her dream real. Wadjda doesn't want to make waves, but she nevertheless desires to be herself and do what she wants. In order to get enough money to purchase the bike, Wadjda enters a contest to read the Quran better than her fellow students. Despite the objections from everyone, including her mother (Reem Abdullah), Wadjda remains focused on making her dream real.
There's no escaping the humanistic neo-realism influence of Vittorio De Sica's magnificent Bicycle Thieves on this movie, or that of the Dardenne brothers' more recent The Kid with a Bike. But what writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour accomplishes here is all her own. Wadjda is the first movie made by a female director to come out of Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas, and many Western viewers will find it an eye-opening experience. The tale is universal; an intrepid and clever underdog protagonist fights for individual freedom within an oppressive community. Al-Mansour, however, infuses this simple tale with delicate moments of insight and emotion, carefully steering away from any overt political statements and instead embedding whatever rebellious criticisms she harbors deep beneath the narrative surface. It's cagey filmmaking to a large degree. Al-Mansour reveals to us a world both harsh and tenderly transcendent, uplifting yet also filled with terrible consequences for females, consistently reminding us that Wadjda, despite her pluck, is faced with lessons that could break her spirit in ways unfathomable for many viewers.
Mohammed, open-eyed and subtly expressive, delivers a standout performance. Like all the best child actors, the less she does, the more powerful the results are. Wadjda is filled with great warmth and moments of surprising humor. It's in no way as great or quietly profound as the work of the Dardenne brothers or Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside, influences that Al-Mansour has directly mentioned in interviews. But Wadjda has real dramatic momentum as it progresses, and it marks an important moment in world cinema. It may overall only be a footnote in the large scheme of things, but it's an encouraging and well-needed picture, regardless.