The cinematic pairing of a 10-year-old girl and a green bicycle might recall the iconic kid-and-toy combination of the classic 1956 French short “The Red Balloon.” And yes, at first glance, “Wadjda” may look like just another kiddie flick. Instead, it proves to be a memorable takedown of the grimly sexist culture of Saudi Arabia.
The movie also happens to be the first feature made entirely within that kingdom by a woman, writer-director Haiffa Al-Mansour. It’s a sweet wonder she was allowed to get away with it.
Waad Mohammed plays our young heroine, Wadjda, an only child who lives in Riyadh with her gorgeous mother (Reem Abdullah), whiling away the evenings wondering whether she’ll see her handsome father. He shows up only every couple of weeks — just long enough to rekindle Wadjda’s love by giving her a trinket, play some video games, eat his wife’s food and disappear again. He’s no deadbeat, though. In fact, he has money, admirers and an impatient mother trying to persuade him to take a second wife who’ll bear him a son.
Her parents’ sometimes playful, sometimes shrill tug of war on this subject is a constant subtext at home, but Wadjda pays little attention. She has her own obsessions. At her strict, girls-only school (the norm), she bends the rules and earns spending money selling classmates contraband soccer-fan bracelets and pop music tapes, or passing notes between an older girl and her “brother” waiting on the street outside.
Wadjda has a goal for her earnings: the green bicycle that she (and we) first see sailing magically through the air above her neighborhood’s wall-lined streets. Actually, it’s mounted on the back of a truck carrying it for sale at the local toy store. That makes it no less magic to Wadjda. She craves a bike like the one owned by Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). He’s the schoolboy whose taunting interactions with her, as they travel to and from their (separate) schools, is the universal children’s code for unspoken adoration.
Problem is, girls aren’t supposed to ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia. Or show the tops of their heads (and, when older, their faces) in public. Even kitted out in a full black abayah, concealing all but their eyes (and sometimes even those), girls aren’t meant to be heard singing or chatting by men. “A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” Wadjda’s strict lady principal chides her pupils. Girls are supposed to be only pure, unseen vessels of beauty and obedience.
That doesn’t stop Wadjda. When the 800 riyals she needs to buy her bike seems a hopelessly steep sum, she comes up with a money-raising scheme that leads to the film’s wry, paradoxical climax. It’s worth seeing the movie to discover this central irony.
To be honest, patches of “Wadjda” feel stretched between the desire to be a fable and an urge to be a scathing cultural expose. After an avalanche of scenes depicting Saudi Arabia’s gender imbalance, you might want to say, “Enough — I get it already.” But the suffocating accumulation is the point. (It certainly makes our own culture, for all its many problems — sexual, racial, economic, political — seem like a secular paradise.)
One of the movie’s strongest performances comes from the mono-named actress Ahd as Ms. Hussa, the school principal and Wadja’s nemesis. The character embodies the notion that women in some Muslim cultures can be their worst self-oppressors. Her face is gorgeous but flawed; she looks like what Wadjda’s mother might after years of bitter self-denial.
But what ultimately carries the movie — the sort of miraculous gamble that a director sometimes makes and too rarely pays off — is Mohammed’s central performance. Her Wadjda is both a dreamer and deeply practical, a spunky freewheeler who’s also able to apply herself with extraordinary focus if she thinks it’s necessary. Those polarities aren’t easy to pull off. The young actress makes it seem so.
In one scene, Wadjda’s mother lovingly mocks her daughter’s momentary attempt to seem bashful about performing in a big school competition the next day. “You? Shy?” the mother says. “Ha, I only wish it were true.” But she doesn’t really. Neither will anyone in the audience who falls under her daughter’s cocky-charming spell.
“Wadjda.” With Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Ahd. Written and directed by Haiffa Al-Mansour. In Arabic with subtitles. Rated PG. 98 minutes. At United Artists Tara Four.