It would be easy enough for Wadjda—a film that had drawn attention for being by a Saudi Arabian woman director, Haifaa Al Mansour—to feel like little more than a cultural manifesto. Even when it does, it’s got one wonderfully effective thing to keep it on track.
That would be the title character, a Saudi Arabian schoolgirl played by first-time actor Waad Mohammed. She’s clearly a bit of a rebel—fond of sneakers with purple shoelaces and Western pop music—to the point where she could easily feel like a Disney animated heroine. When Wadjda sets her sights on a new bicycle as a goal—in a society where girls simply don’t ride bicycles—you can practically see where the “I want” musical production number would go.
But there’s an edge to Mohammed’s performance as a girl with enough schemer in her to realize that trying to win a Koran recitation competition might not only earn her the money to buy that bike, but convince her teachers that she’s mending her ways. And she’s no saint representing all of oppressed womanhood, choosing not to exonerate two girls accused of having an inappropriate relationship. In all her moodiness and grudge-holding, she feels, simply, like a typical adolescent—and Wadjda provides a great structure for showing how far that puts her outside the mainstream of her society.
In a lot of other ways, the film feels considerably clunkier, running through the obstacles facing Saudi women—dependence on male drivers for transportation, the possibility of a husband leaving you if you don’t bear him a son—more dutifully than creatively. Yet by keeping the focus on the women—including those whose attitudes and hypocrisies help perpetuate this way of life—Wadjda generally feels anchored in the authentic-feeling life of one authentic-feeling girl.
Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah