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‘Wadjda’: A Saudi girl dreams of two-wheeled freedom

A 10-year-old girl Saudi Arabi(Waad Mohammed) scrambles earn enough riyals buy knockout bicycle ‘Wadjda” country’s first feature film.

A 10-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia (Waad Mohammed) scrambles to earn enough riyals to buy a knockout of a bicycle in ‘Wadjda,” the country’s first feature film.

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‘WADJDA’ ★★★★

Mother Reem Abdullah

Wadjda Waad Mohammed

Abdullah Abdullrahman Al Gohani

Ms. Hussa Ahd

Father Sultan Al Assaf

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking). Opening Friday at Landmark Century Centre.

Updated: October 21, 2013 6:09AM

There’s a lot more going on in this first feature film from Saudi Arabia, where movie theaters are banned, than the deceptively simple story of a girl who’s willing to do just about anything to buy her first bicycle.

Even if that were all there was to it, though, “Wadjda” would still be a must-see.

A groundbreaking film in more ways than one, “Wadjda,” which finds a sneakily innocuous way to address the severe constraints placed on women in Saudi society, was also written and directed by a woman. Haifaa Al-Mansour, who also directed the 2005 documentary “Women without Shadows,” reports that she resorted at times to directing the action with a walkie-talkie from inside a van to avoid stirring up controversy by giving male crew members orders while shooting outdoors.

That’s precisely the sort of tactic that would appeal to 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who proves adept at appearing to follow the rules while actually pursuing her own ends. A rebellious spirit who wears high-top sneakers under her abaya cloak at her strictly religious school and listens to underground pop-music stations in her room, Wadjda has one great desire: to own a bicycle so she can race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani).

Not just any bicycle, but the bicycle: a dazzling green beauty that appears to her almost as a vision one day, lashed to the top of a truck so she sees it floating above a wall on its way to a neighborhood toy shop. Of course, she can’t afford it, so she asks her mother to help and learns that her dream, while not quite forbidden, is definitely frowned upon as a danger to a girl’s virginity. “Have you ever seen a girl riding a bicycle?” asks her loving but conservative mom (Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah). In any case, she has worries of her own, fearing that Wadjda’s father will replace her as a wife because she can no longer bear children.

Undeterred, Wadjda does what she can to make money at school, selling bracelets and charging a fee to deliver forbidden notes from older girls to their boyfriends. It seems impossible that she will be able to earn the 800 riyals she needs, though, until she learns that the school’s strict and disapproving principal (the single-named Saudi actress Ahd), who already has her eye on Wadjda as a troublemaker, has arranged a 1,000-riyal prize for the winner of the annual Quran-reciting contest. And all Wadjda has to do to win is appear to repent her wicked ways, join the school’s religious club, and somehow defeat the front-runners who have been reciting for years.

It’s possible to discern grim undertones in this generally light and upbeat film, because while Wadjda pursues her vision of freedom, the restricting conventions of society are closing in on her. And she will soon discover the game is rigged against her in ways she hasn’t imagined.

She is coming to the end of her childhood, and life for the older girls and women in “Wadjda,” including her mother, is marked by enforced repression. They can’t vote, they can’t drive, they must be completely covered when they go outside, and they can’t raise their voices in the presence of men. “A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” says the school principal, who publicly humiliates two older girls she considers guilty of indecent behavior.

Yet Al-Mansour has managed to embue “Wadjda” with a hopeful spirit, partially because she takes time to show women finding ways to be themselves in private moments. And partially because she suggests with a few subtle touches that the situation might be slowly improving. But primarily because of the film’s young star, whose mischievous performance is a pure delight — conveying the impression that, come what may, Wadjda will be just fine.

Bruce Ingram is a local freelance writer.

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