If every story about the new Saudi Arabian film Wadjda begins with the same pieces of information, the reason is simple: It would be downright unfair to leave the backstory out. This film was the first feature shot in a country that, as every interview with the director, Haifaa al-Mansour, will tell you, doesn’t have cinema. Strict rules for female behavior required the movie’s director to, at times, sit in a van and speak to her actors via walkie-talkie. Despite those strict rules, the screenplay — about a girl who wants to race her friend Abdullah on her own bike — was given government approval.
Wadjda is a groundbreaking film no matter how you look at it. It’s also an exceptional one. The title character, played by Waad Mohammed, is as normal a preteen as you ever did see: She ties her Converse with purple laces, dubs hit songs off an old radio and banters with the boy next door, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). For all of these things and more, she gets in varying degrees of trouble with her school’s headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel). (It doesn’t help that her headscarf is perpetually in danger of making a break for it.)
Wadjda isn’t rebellious for rebellion’s sake; she’s just not very good at being obedient and has a curious and entrepreneurial spirit. Her love for a shiny green bicycle leads her to enter a Koran recitation contest, which has a nice cash prize. Whether Wadjda believes any of the words she learns to recite is debatable; she’s using the appearance of belief as a means to her own ends. Without ever coming right out and saying so, Wadjda makes a subtle, artful case that she is hardly the only one.
Delicate, insightful, funny and wise, al-Mansour’s screenplay shows a girl on the cusp of change. Her growth into a teenager will bring not the freedoms we associate with growing up, but more restrictions on what she can do, where she can go and how she can be seen. Compassionate where a lesser writer might be judgmental, al-Mansour is a genius of showing, not telling: She shows us Wadjda’s mother, waiting for her ride to work, because women can’t drive. She shows us Wadjda’s father, whose family is pushing him toward taking a new wife since his first wife hasn’t borne him a son. And she shows us a country of growth and change, where shop signs are in multiple languages, the drivers are immigrants facing their own problems, new buildings grow out of dusty lots — and a girl might get to ride her bike down the street. A film of little victories and quiet losses, Wadjda uses an intimate narrative to show us something much, much bigger.
WADJDA: Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour. Cinematography, Lutz Reitemeier. Editing, Andreas Wodraschke. Music, Max Richter. Starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd Kamel and Sultan Al Assaf. Sony Pictures Classics, 2013. PG. 98 minutes. Four Stars.