Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Stars: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah
3 (out of 5) Globes
The first thing we see of 11-year-old Saudi Arabian suburbanite Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is her shoes. Where the other students in her girls-only school go conservative, she rocks Chucks with purple laces. In many ways she could pass as a Western teenager, albeit of an era a couple decades back. She makes mixtapes and drowns out her mom’s yelling by blasting the radio (with a station that plays “the sound of the underground” — i.e., innocuous American pop). What’s more, while her headmistress is a preening fascist, her mom (Reem Abdullah) is relatively cool, not caring if she doesn’t wear her head scarf, and only occasionally remembering to engage in morning prayer.
It’s no shock on which side of the progress-tradition divide “Wadjda” lies. The first film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia — and by a woman to boot — it borrows a tried-and-true trick from other Middle Eastern films (most notably Iranian): If you want to get national and cultural criticisms past censors, couch them in the story of cute kids.
Wadjda has a simple mission: She wants a bike, so as to race a boy with whom she’s engaged in a prepubescent form of competition-flirting. This is a very un-girly desire, and her mission to acquire it is rather brilliant. Instead of spelling bees, her school holds contests on Quran knowledge. Wadjda’s knowledge of religion is lacking, but pretending to be holy in a land that disapproves of all outcasts can only be a win-win.
The premise is simple enough to allow all manner of homeland critiques. Often times it feels like director Haifaa al-Mansour, making her feature debut, is working off a vast checklist of complaints. From the classmate just wed to a 20-year-old to her mom’s boyfriend, who demands she bear him a son, to the banishment of two girls caught in a vaguely not-just-friends position, “Wadjda” winds up with so many gratuitous sidelines that the focus often feels off. There’s so many distractions that the predictable, almost inevitable way the “A plot” winds up resolved feels like a bit of a surprise — which may be why it’s still satisfying.