Wadjda didn’t need to be good to be remembered. It’s the first-ever narrative feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a land without movie theaters. It was helmed by a Saudi woman unafraid to challenge her kingdom’s approach to sex-based legislation: Women aren’t legally allowed to drive, are publicly segregated from men, and are prohibited from most employment opportunities. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour filmed all of Wadjda’s outdoor scenes via headset from inside a car, lest strangers be offended by the sight of her giving directions to men.
These are the facts of Wadjda, and they are, objectively, more important than anything Americans might opine about the film itself, now that it’s seeing a Stateside release. Adding that it’s terrific seems beside the point. Its quality is dwarfed by the significance of Al-Mansour—a noted provocateur who last ruffled Saudi feathers with her 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows—building it with her own hands in her native country. Not to mention that there’s no sure way to separate the movie’s quality from its NPR-perfect backstory and pleasing girl-power candy coating, so there will always be an angle from which praise of Wadjda only sounds like, “Way to go, Saudi women!”
So be it: Yes, the film is terrific. Al-Mansour has said she drew inspiration from neo-realist works like Bicycle Thieves, and Wadjda sits nicely alongside Vittorio De Sica’s classic of the lower class, but not just because both heroes covet two-wheelers. Like Thieves, Wadjda is understated yet expressly political, a story of a simple, universal desire that becomes a bold provocation only in the context of its setting. With patience and tightly honed focus (the majority of the film takes place at home and school), Al-Mansour creates a palpable sense of simmering resentment.
Wadjda (confident first-timer Waad Mohammed) is a spunky creation, a loud preteen who parades in her room to American pop songs and doesn’t hide the dirty sneakers she wears underneath her abaya. She clashes with her school’s stern headmistress (Ahd) and sneaks playdates with Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a neighbor boy from a different tribe. She decides she wants to race Abdullah on wheels, and enters a Quran recitation competition at her school in the hopes of buying a bike with the prize money.
The husk of the film’s plot is conventional family melodrama, engineered for maximum uplift, but therein lies its true subversive quality. Since Saudi custom discourages women from riding bikes, a happy ending for Wadjda would be a slap in the face to the country’s Sharia doctrine. Through some devious narrative calculus, Al-Mansour has placed an innocent young girl at bitter odds with a rigidly defined interpretation of a sacred text. A side story concerns Wadjda’s traditionalist mother (the elegant Reem Abdullah), who, in a frightening twist on Western romances, gives herself makeovers in the hopes of convincing her husband not to take a second wife. Her efforts to gussy up feel like desperate acts of prayer from an antiquated era, as the husband is rarely seen onscreen (though he does find the time to play Dead Island).
Al-Mansour embraces a meditative filmmaking style, employing wide angles and long takes for street scenes while keeping the editing tight during confrontational indoor sequences. She also has an eye for ingenious visual cues: A rooftop scene late in the film turns the sight of fireworks, usually a lame trope, into a signifier of something more unnerving. And the bike Wadjda wants so badly enters her field of vision on the bed of an obscured truck, so that it appears to fly into the drab, sandy Riyadh streets powered by some divine presence.
Wadjda was made with permission from the Saudi government, which signals that the country may be willing to accept challenging homegrown artistic visions, just as it has recently relaxed its stance on women riding bikes. It’s mind-bending that the first of these efforts can simultaneously be radical, populist, and an expertly crafted piece of filmmaking. Like the film’s bike, with its bright green frame and yellow handlebar streamers, Wadjda is an object of stark beauty, an oasis of free-spirited cinema emerging from the desert. Way to go, Saudi women.