By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
How’s this for firsts? Wadjda is the first entirely domestically shot film in Saudi Arabia, a country where movie theaters are illegal. It’s also the first film ever directed by a woman (Haifaa Al Mansour) there, which she accomplished even though she had to direct any outside scenes from a van that must have looked liked the world’s most obvious surveillance vehicle.
Okay, second most obvious
Wadjda tells the story of its titular 10 year old girl (Waad Mohammed), who’s quite the little non-conformist in a country that ain’t too cool with that. What she really wants in life is a bicycle, which most of the authority figures aren’t too cool about because after riding one you might as well tattoo ‘harlot’ on your forehead and start wearing capris or something (so no, it’s not illegal there, like female driving actually is*, but may as well be).
The villagers with torches and pitchforks are just offscreen
In order to get the money for Satan’s Velocipede, (Boom, copyright! Name your rock band something else.) she enters her school’s Koran recitation contest. Meanwhile, trouble’s brewing at home as Dad considers taking a second, hopefully son-bearing, wife.
*It’s bad for the uterus, apparently????
It’s easy to get caught up in the avalanche of social and symbolic importance this film has, but we’ll try and stick to its filmic merits from here. First off, it functions as an absolutely fascinating glance at a society that’s geopolitically important, but still very closed to most. The portrait Al Mansour paints here is of a country caught between modernization and medieval ideals, where the latest gaming system sits in the house but women are stuck doing the same without a driver our male relative to accompany them. Al Mansour captures this dichotomy with a great eye, allowing images like a burqa-clad woman in the mall looking at a red dress she could never wear in public tell the story for her.
She also isn’t afraid to tackle multiple social issues at once, touching not only on Wadjda’s struggle and the second wife subplot, but also class divides with their driver, arranged marriages, highly dangerous covert affairs, and even the stigma of homosexuality. She weaves all of these into her narrative well, but unquestionably the main focus and the star of the show is still first time actress Waad Mohammed, whose Wadjda is a spunky, clever, and charming character who you never tire of. She carries the movie on her back without a misstep, and by the time the film’s excellent ending comes, with its perfect balance of heartbreak and hope, you already wish you could spend more time with her.
Get this little badass in the next Fast & Furious flick or something.
This film is very conventionally plotted and shot, which one reviewer (ironically, the lone dissenter on Rotten Tomatoes so far) pointed out sanitizes and even undercuts its message of nonconformity somewhat. More cinematic daring would have drove home its impact significantly.
Expounding on that, there are times during the film when I got the nagging suspicion that the movie was geared exclusively towards Western audiences. There are plot points here that the characters shouldn’t have to have explained to them, and subtlety isn’t exactly Al Mansour’s strong suit. The fact that I was wondering about the film’s authenticity at all took me out of it at times.
An important film by dint of its existence alone, Wadjda is also an engaging, often amusing, and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a young girl just trying to be herself in one of the world’s most hostile locales to do just that.
Take a Drink: anytime you see something the Dark Ages probably would’ve been down with
Take a Drink: whenever Wadjda back-sasses or just doesn’t give a damn
Take a Drink: for every little moment of heartbreak
Do a Shot: whenever “thieves” are mentioned