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Wadjda Is a Simple, Solid, Affecting Film

Tobias Kownatzki

Like all kid protagonists in movies, Wadjda's Wadjda wants one pure thing so much that the very concept of want shades into need. If this plucky Saudi Arabian girl (played by preteen Waad Mohammed) doesn't get a bicycle, it seems, some fundamental quality of hers might not survive her adolescence. Staked on it is nothing less than her sense that she can grow up to be a person of her choosing. But that bike is a pricey 800 riyals, and Wadjda's mother's teaching salary is tied up in car services — women in the Kingdom are forbidden to drive — and in a smashing new dress chosen to win back the attention of Wadjda's father, a man who is scouting around for a newer, presumably younger wife. Even worse, from Wadjda's perspective: The very thought of a girl on a bike is enough to send her family and teachers into a panic. A simple, solid, affecting film, Wadjda is something rare: the work of a female Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour, and a feature from a country that has long outlawed cinemas. It's a hard-to-shake look at the everyday realities of being a woman — or growing to be a woman — in a country that strictly limits what a woman can be. Mohammed's charisma and the film's appreciation for the hopefulness of children keep it from becoming too grim to bear. Just seeing life in Riyadh is a revelation. Al Mansour frames the city's slab-like structures in static compositions, slightly off-center, and then sets the kids loose to dash around and through them. The feeling is of effervescence among a stolid permanence. Be ready to bawl at the end.

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