Opens Fri., Oct. 18 at Harvard Exit. Rated PG. 97 minutes.
Let us assemble the elements of a formulaic story: Spunky pre-adolescent girl, patriarchal society, girl’s dream of owning a bicycle, school contest with cash prize allowing for bipedal purchase. Oh, and there’s domestic unrest in the girl’s home, which helps account for her acting out. It would be easy to suggest that this formula is redeemed through the sheer novelty of this film’s setting, Saudi Arabia. The stakes are higher, the patriarchy crazier, and the tale of the movie’s making an added value. (Wadjda is the first feature directed by a Saudi woman.) But I think the film is better than its formula and better than its backstory. In fact, it’s pretty awesome.
Writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour studied cinema overseas and produced her film with international funding. She shot some of the exterior scenes from the inside of a van, because a woman working with men in public is not looked on with favor in Riyadh. Her struggles are more than good journalistic copy; they explain the controlled ferocity of the movie’s storytelling, which is a coded version of the making of the film itself.
Our first glimpse of Wadjda energizes the movie. She’s a smart and innately rebellious 10-year-old—a stock character, perhaps, but not in Waad Mohammed’s performance. Her insolent body language and exasperated eye-rolling mark Wadjda as a hilariously recognizable 21st-century child, even if the society around her seems more 16th-century. Wadjda’s father has left their home because her mother (Reem Abdullah) is unable to supply more children, which means no male heir. This creepy system explains why Wadjda could be inspired to revolt and buy a bicycle, even though everybody keeps telling her girls shouldn’t ride bikes (because their virginity might be compromised).
Al-Mansour makes her points without caricaturing her characters; the father (Sultan al-Assaf), for instance, is warm and kind, if weak. Her film could not exist if it were a screed, but even the casual depiction of inequality is infuriating. Like the great generation of Iranian filmmakers in the ’90s, she uses a childhood story as a way of smuggling in her concerns. If she hadn’t used such subterfuge, it’s unlikely Saudi Arabia would have offered Wadjda as the country’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards. (This is a big deal for a country with no movie theaters.) Al-Mansour plays it careful even during the expected happy ending. Something has been achieved in the sun-baked scene, but the shadow of “What next?” continues through the fade-out.