Movies written and directed by women are unthinkable in Saudi Arabia, and indeed this film is banned in filmmaker Mansour's home country. But it's essential viewing for more than that reason: this is a charming and sensitive drama that quietly highlights Arab life from a female perspective in a way we have never seen before. By seeing the situation from a schoolgirl's perspective, the film reverberates for us too.
Wadjda (Mohammed) is a feisty 10-year-old who always seems to be in trouble at her girls' school in Riyadh. Too curious for her own good, her teacher (Ahd) and headmistress (Alyaaqop) want her to wear a head-to-toe covering to help her grow up. Her loving parents (Abdullah and Assaf) are supportive but preoccupied with the fact that her father is looking for another wife since her mother can't have more children, most importantly a son. Meanwhile, Wadjda is focussed on getting a green bicycle from a neighbourhood shop so she can race her friend Abdullah (Gohani). Even though girls aren't allowed to ride bikes, Wadjda launches a series of money-making schemes.
Tellingly, Wadjda's ultimate plan is to win the prize money in a difficult Koran competition, and the fact that she's participating makes everyone think that she's suddenly serious about being a good Muslim girl. But she's secretly getting bike-riding lessons from Abdullah, listening to pop music on her iPod and wearing jeans and Converse trainers like kids everywhere on earth. She's also starting to realise that her educational, professional and personal options are harshly limited simply because she's female. Which hardly seems fair since she knows she'll beat Abdullah when they have their race.
Filmmaker Mansour gently drops in telling details, such as how Wadja must contend with sexist leering from men on the streets. Every scene is infused with this kind of irony, as well as a generous current of offbeat humour. All of the performances are raw and natural, reflecting the attitudes of women who just get on with life under these conditions and men who grow up knowing that they are entitled to everything. This is Wadjda's first real encounter with the injustice of her culture, and her reactions are revelatory. She may be idealistic about the way she approaches each situation, but she's also a real inspiration.
Run time: 98 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 16th May 2013
Box Office USA: $1.4M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Fresh: 101 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Producer: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul
Screenwriter: Haifaa Al Mansour
Starring: Reem Abdullah as Mother, Waad Mohammed as Wadjda, Abdullrahman Algohani as Abdullah, Ahd as Ms. Hussa, Sultan Al Assaf as Father, Dana Abdullilah as Salma, Rehab Ahmed as Noura, Rafa Al Sanea as Fatima, Sara Aljaber as Leila, Noura Faisal as Abeer, Talal Loay as Abeer's Young Man, Sami Hazim as Abdullah's uncle, Mohammed Zahir as Iqbal - the driver, Nouf Saad as Koran Teacher, Faoziah Alyaaqop as Ms Jamilia