out of Five
Running time: 98
Brilliantly directed and superbly written, this is a warmly emotional and gently provocative coming-of-age drama with a terrific central performance from young first-timer Waad Mohammed.
What's it all about?
Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, Wadjda has the distinction of being the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia by a female Saudi director. Set in present-day Riyadh, the film stars newcomer Waad Mohammed as Wadjda, a daydreaming, pop-music-loving 10 year old who's always in trouble with her strict girls' school teacher Ms Hussa (Ahd) for letting her head go uncovered or for letting her voice be heard by men.
When her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) proudly shows off his new bike, Wadjda schemes to get enough money to buy a bike of her own (even though girls aren't allowed to ride bikes) and decides to enter a school competition to recite the Koran in the hopes of winning the cash prize. Meanwhile, Wadjda's loving mother (Reem Abdullah) fears that her mother-in-law will force her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) to remarry, since she has been unable to bear him a son.
Waad Mohammed is terrific as Wadjda, delivering a heartfelt performance that is utterly captivating as she stoically absorbs all the injustices that modern day Saudi Arabian society throws at her; consequently, her every little rebellion (whether it's wearing forbidden footwear or attempting to protect other trouble-prone girls) is genuinely thrilling. There's also strong support from Reem Abdullah and Abdullrahman Al Gohani, while Ahd is sure to evoke memories of every horrible teacher you've ever known as Ms Hussa.
The script is excellent, expertly pulling off the subtly provocative feat of telling a wider political story within a coming-of-age context, without ever resorting to preachiness or sugary sentimentality. Equally admirable is the way the sub-plot involving Wadjda's mother unfolds from the girl's point of view, so the audience occasionally has to read between the lines to devastating effect.
The film makes strong use of its central symbol of freedom (leading waggish critics to dub it The Other Kid With A Bike), which also echoes key references, such as De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and the work of the Dardennes. On top of that, Wadjda's tenacity is reflected in the director herself, who made the film in extraordinary circumstances – Saudi Arabian society forbade her from publicly mixing with the men in the crew, so she often had to direct scenes from the back of a van.
Well made and superbly acted, Wadjda is a wonderful coming-of-age drama that marks writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour out as a major talent to watch. Unmissable and one of the best films of the year.