Sultan Al Assaf, background, and Reem Abdullah as the parents in Wadjda (Tobias Kownatzki/Sony Pictures Classics)

Sultan Al Assaf, background, and Reem Abdullah as the parents in Wadjda (Tobias Kownatzki/Sony Pictures Classics)

Written and Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour
Produced by Razor Film, Roman Paul & Gerhard Meixner
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Arabic with English subtitles
Saudi Arabia/Germany. 97 min. Rated PG
With Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan Al Assaf & Ahd

Wadjda charmingly promotes a quiet revolution in Saudi Arabia through the point of view of the titular, rebellious 10-year-old girl. As the first woman writer/director in the kingdom, director Haifaa Al Mansour rebelled against conservative social strictures, though she had official support, to make her first feature a balanced, humanistic story.

Wearing sneakers and her head scarf askew, Wadjda (the spirited Waad Mohammed) is a tomboy rebel at her segregated school in the outskirts of the capital Riyadh. Back home, she listens to pop music and plays as long as possible with a neighbor boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She longs to race around outside in the neighborhood on a bicycle like he does, but her life is already in training to be as constricted as the lives of the women around her (played by prominent Saudi actresses). Her mother (Reem Abdullah) is affectionate, but emotionally and financially stressed by her own problems—her mother-in-law is pressuring her husband to divorce her to marry a second wife for a son. Wadjda’s mother wants to support her daughter by working at a hospital where her more modern sister got her a better-paying job, but her schedule is at the mercy of the immigrant drivers ferrying carloads of women, who aren’t allowed to drive themselves.

At school, the tough, almost Dickensian principal of the girl’s school, Hussa (Ahd), is so intent on enforcing proper behavior that she punishes two teen girls for the hints at what may be a too-close, sinful relationship (let alone that the girls sneak in nail polish and celebrity magazines). Clever, feisty Wadjda figures out a way she can outsmart them all and get what she wants—to buy the green bicycle that she’s been eying at a local store. The principal announces a Koran recitation competition with a cash prize, and Wadjda becomes the principal’s pride and joy in devoting herself to extra lessons. Al Mansour, who studied filmmaking in Australia, was inspired by the classic neorealism of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Jafar Panahi’s Offside, referenced by how Wadjda earns extra money for a Koran learning aid by making and selling (forbidden) bracelets for her classmates, made with the colors of their favorite soccer teams.

If only she could keep her personal goal to herself. As suspenseful as the competition is, the reactions to her intentions are an emotional, unpredictable roller coaster—from her principal, the neighborhood boy, and especially her mother, leaving the audience with some hopeful, optimistic feelings about the future, where oppression of women, even by other women, can at least be ameliorated.