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With: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf
Written by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking
Language: Arabic, with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 09/13/2013
IMDB

Wadjda (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bicycle Grief

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, and Wadjda is the first feature film directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia. Apparently, she was forced to do most of her work via monitors and walkie-talkies from the inside of a van, since men and women are not allowed to be seen working together.

This is a big deal, but it's not really enough to get people to come see a movie. The information is something more for the history books, like a fact to be tested on later. What should get people to come see Wadjda is that it's a wonderful movie.

Wadjda is the name of the movie's intrepid heroine, a lovely, restless, clever 11 year-old girl played by the amazing Waad Mohammed in her first role. Although she must wear black from her head to her shins like her classmates, she brightens up her day with a pair of kicky Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. I kept thinking that I'd love to see a long career for this actress, but that her future in the arts must be a terribly uncertain one.

Wadjda does not have a bad life. Her mother and father love one another, and her mother is a stunning, sensual beauty, played by Reem Abdullah, also in her movie debut. Wadjda and her mother live in a fairly nice home, in relative comfort, with plenty of food, even though the father is not around much.

Unfortunately, since Wadjda is a girl and an only child, and her father requires a son, he is considering seeking another wife (apparently there's pressure from the rest of his family to do this). This threat hangs over the entire movie. It's heartbreaking to watch Wadjda's mother do everything in her power -- which is not much -- to hang on to her husband, i.e. buy nice dresses, wear her hair long, etc.

But whether or not Wadjda fully understands what's going on, her primary concern is to obtain a bicycle for herself, so she can race -- and beat -- her male friend, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani). Since raising the money herself would take too long -- she earns cash by selling mix tapes and friendship bracelets -- and since her mother won't give it to her, Wadjda's next best chance is to win the money in a competition that requires her to memorize and recite the Qur'an.

You may think that she learns all about spirituality and piety, but she remains true to herself throughout. In fact, she remains so true to herself, that she provides the movie's unexpected ending.

Though Al-Mansour's movie is an act of political defiance, she does not wish to preach or spew hatred and anger. She drizzles subtle commentaries about the relationships between men and women, ranging from the big one: Wadjda's father must have a son, to smaller ones, such as a construction worker making catcalls to Wadjda (remember -- she's eleven), or the girls having to move out of one section of their schoolyard because male workers on a distant roof can see them. A female teacher, Ms. Hussa (played by one of the cast's veterans, filmmaker and actress Ahd), harshly reminds the girls of their societal obligations as women.

Yet Al-Mansour leaves the movie with some hope, since Wadjda's friend Abdullah is shown to truly respect and care for his friend on a personal level. He even loves her (he tells her he wants to marry her when they get old enough). He likes her fiery personality and does not want to tame it.

I love how Wadjda feels fully-rounded and manages such a lovely balance. It feels meaty and intelligent, but not at the expense of emotion, or even pure enjoyment. It has a lightness of touch, but without sacrificing anything important. In short, this is the remarkable debut of a remarkable batch of talents, and even if their future in the field is uncertain, we can at least cherish this one movie.

Sony Pictures Home Video released a very fine Blu-ray, with stunning picture quality, and a DVD included in the package. The supplements on this one are very interesting, given the cultural and historical importance of this movie. There's a good half-hour making-of documentary that was actually filmed during production, rather than a selection of talking-head interviews after the fact. There's a 38-minute interview with Al-Mansour, and the director also provides an English-language commentary track, filling in more details. The disc also comes with trailers for this and for other Sony releases.

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