Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a Saudi woman director, this charming film was nominated for the BAFTA best foreign picture as well as for the Academy Award for best foreign film in 2014. The tale of Wadjda, a 10-year-old girl who defies the cultural norms of Saudi Arabian society, could be any little girl who is trying to make her way in a world of little boys who already understand that boys rule. Waad Mohammed, the 10-year old actress who carries the film, is phenomenal and reminds the viewer of the young Quvenzhané Wallis of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” (2012) (See my review of “Beasts” September 8, 2012.)
Her best friend is a neighborhood boy, Abdullah, who seems to take her headstrong nature in stride. Fun-loving yet tenacious, Wadjda wants to have a green bicycle to race with Abdullah. But girls are not allowed to ride bikes. Undeterred, Wadjda enters a Koran competition, hoping to win the prize money for the bike.
Wadjda’s mother is equally remarkable and supportive, mirroring the child’s independence and yearning for a freer form of life. Yet the viewer is not given a lecture, and misogynistic elements of the treatment of girls (or perhaps the fear of them?) is laced with subtle humor. One example: a fit of giggles erupts when the girls who are menstruating have to cover their hands with a cloth before touching the Koran.
A delightful gem of a film celebrating the human spirit and the unwillingness to simply accept fate or broken dreams, “Wadjda” is a movie that will touch your heart.
Note: Available on Netflix. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour was not allowed to speak directly to her male film crew. In a nearby van, watching through a monitor, she gave directions via walkie-talkie.