Wadjda, the title character of Haifaa al-Mansour's charming first feature, is an entrepreneurial 10-year-old in Riyadh - a girl who wears scruffy Converse sneakers and jeans under her long black robe, sells homemade bracelets and mix tapes to make extra money, constantly runs afoul of the headmistress at her school, and longs desperately for the shiny olive-green bicycle on sale at a neighborhood store.
But girls are not supposed to ride bicycles - it's undignified, inappropriate, in conservative Islamic culture, which is the culture all around her. And Wadjda's mother, who has her own problems - her husband is considering taking a second wife, one who will bear him a son - isn't about to buy a bike for her daughter.
Al-Mansour is the first female director to come out of Saudi Arabia. (In fact, she is one of its first directors, period - the country's film industry is virtually nonexistent.) Like many of the neorealist Iranian films of the 1980s and '90s (Children of Heaven, Where is My Friend's House?), al-Mansour's debut presents a child's view of a contradictory and often troubling adult world. But in a way that is neither strident nor dogmatic, Wadjda also challenges the male-dominated Saudi social order.
Why can't Wadjda ride a bike?
Why does her mother have to stand idly by while her spouse courts another woman?
Waad Mohammed, rascally and brimming with intelligence, plays Wadjda just right: Here's a kid who can outsmart just about everyone, including the scowling school head (the mono-monikered Ahd). Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdullah) tolerates her daughter's independent streak - and spirit - up to a point. And then there is Abdullah (Abdullrahman al Gohani), the neighborhood boy smitten with Wadjda who will gladly teach her how to ride if it means spending time with her.
Wadjda's plan to come up with the cash for the bicycle is ingenious - a grand con. She enters a school competition to recite the Koran, to memorize and sing its text, impressing her teachers with her devotion and diligence. The winning student gets a cash prize. And who will it be?
Wadjda is a movie about freedom - and nothing represents freedom with the metaphoric simplicity and symmetry of a bicycle.
Wadjda ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. With Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman al Gohani, and Ahd. In Arabic with subtitles. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five