Bike-riding is seen as a threat to feminine virtue.
Wadjda is a sly kid, entrepreneurial, even conniving. She's like Tom Sawyer if he were a girl and could recite long passages of the Quran from memory. Played by Waad Mohammed, Wadjda is the title character of writer and director Haifaa Al-Mansour's fine debut feature, a family drama with some very funny moments. Most of those are courtesy of Mohammed, an appealing 12-year-old actress with solid comic instincts.
Wadjda wants a bike, but people around her agree that a Saudi Arabian girl shouldn't have one, because bike-riding isn't consistent with feminine virtue. Wadjda raises money for the purchase by selling homemade tchotchkes and running a petty scam here and there. Then she learns of a Quran-reciting contest for girls. Its rich prize would pay for the bike. Previously rebellious and irreverent, she seemingly becomes a model of piety as, in the days before the competition, she studies the holy book.
According to the production notes, Al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. I am astonished to read that, and saddened. I am saddened by other passages in the press kit, like this from a Q&A with Al-Mansour about the filming: "I occasionally had to run and hide in the production van in some of the more conservative areas."
Al-Mansour has made a film that is angry about this situation, about the status of women and girls in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda isn't merely polemical, though, and that is to its credit. Saudi women can't drive, and Al-Mansour doesn't simply tell us that this is, for them, a degrading and inconvenient state of affairs. She shows us, in stark detail, and in ways that grow organically out of the story and characters. The message is all the more powerful for that.
I gather we're meant to link the proscription on women drivers with what everyone is telling Wadjda about girls and bikes. Bikes give kids a little freedom, after all. Wadjda makes me think of the excellent 2011 Belgian drama The Kid With a Bike, in which the titular two-wheeler is likewise both a plot element and a potent symbol.
In a subplot, Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdullah) is anguished because her husband (Waad Mohammed) seems to be on the verge of marrying another woman, in a polygamous arrangement. This is appalling, and so is a brief scene in which a girl of 10 or 12 gleefully shares pictures of her wedding to a 20-year-old man.
My only quibble with Wadjda is that for the purposes of storytelling, I wouldn't mind some balance. The religious forces arrayed against these characters are monstrous, but surely followers of Islam also find beauty and comfort in their faith. We don't hear much about that.