The first film from Saudi Arabia, a nation where movie theaters are forbidden but content may be viewed in the privacy of one’s home, Wadjda marks a daring debut into the cinematic world. Not one to approach the opportunity with too much caution, writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s look at the harsh social expectations placed upon Saudi women grows in complexity and potential positivity as viewed through the filter of the titular 10-year-old girl (Waad Mohammed). Mired in an environment where women must hire drivers for their work commute and can’t even be seen by men without facial coverage, the presence of a child who simply wishes to listen to her rock music and sell the colorful bracelets that she makes in her bedroom studio is fairly radical. When she wants a taboo bicycle to outrace a neighborhood boy (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), however, the daring reaches a new level and encourages even more provocative dialogue.
Blessed by Mohammed’s charming turn, Wadjda wears her alternative thinking from the purple laces on her sneakers to her self-assured yet silly facial expressions. Her bubbly personality and innocent indifference to the customs form the film’s heart and allow for decent cultural exploration when that mindset clashes with more traditional adults. Unintentionally prodded by the woes of her beleaguered mother (Reem Abdullah), who’s lost favor with her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) due to an inability to bear a son after nearly dying giving birth to their daughter, Wadjda’s resistance feels like a steady nudge for her mother’s own awakening. The concept of standing up for herself (within reason) comes as common sense to Wadjda and her mother’s inability to take note is a steady source of frustration. Committed to her beliefs, when Wadja’s mother tells her that she won’t be able to have children if she rides a bicycle, the statement seems especially inane next to Wadjda’s unbridled confidence, yet the stubbornness is a daily occurrence.
The concept of coloring within the lines grows increasingly frustrating at Wadjda’s all-girls school. Policed by headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who perhaps compensates for her trysts with a “thief” who hopped over her wall by being extra strict on her students, holding true to religious law becomes tainted with hypocrisy. It’s then only fitting that the sly Wadjda seeks to undermine the system by appearing to play by its rules. Entering a Koran recitation competition for its cash prize, she wears her conformist mask well, deepening the situation and leading to many small victories.
With all these struggles at play, it would appear that Wadjda has the makings of a compelling story, yet Al-Mansour rolls much of it out with a molasses-slow pace. Over time, the dramas grow repetitious and it’s unclear just where any of the women are in their respective battles. There’s also a missed opportunity with a pair of older girls, Fatima (Rafa Al Sanea) and Noura (Rehab Ahmed), rebels who serve as quasi-role models for Wadjda and who seem about to let their young onlooker in on their fun. Instead, they stand as mere cautionary tales, though even with these shortcomings a few beautiful moments shine through. Part of the expected “sports story” arc brought on by the contest, the big one works and still manages to undercut its inevitability. For that turn and other final act twists that succeed, Wadjda seems a likely Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the 2014 Academy Awards. Not the most impressive piece of world cinema this year, it’s still a good start and more importantly serves as a strong jumping-off point from which other Saudi filmmakers may build.
Rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking.
Wadjda is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.