Like all child 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 adolescence. Her yen for small rebellions seems staked on it, as does 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, as is his right, 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 into a panic. At one point, her mother — a radiant, heartbreaking Reem Abdullah — catches Wadjda cycling in circles on a bike borrowed from a boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a likable kid naive enough to believe he can be best friends with a girl without consequences. Wadjda takes a spill, hitting concrete; her mother sees a flash of blood and immediately fears that Wadjda has destroyed the key to a future happier than her own — her hymen.
It isn't. Wadjda has merely skinned her knee.
A simple, solid, deeply affecting film, Wadjda is something rare: the work of a female Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour, and a feature from a country in which cinemas are outlawed. 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. We see Wadjda given, with warm ceremony, her first abaya, a hand-me-down from Mom necessary after a teacher at Wadjda's madrassa tells the young girl she's now old enough to have to start fully covering herself. We see Wadjda and her schoolmates, bare-faced but robed from head to toe, chased off their secluded recess ground because they can be seen by the construction workers on a neighboring building. (Wadjda's rebellions involve mild insouciance, mixtapes of rock music and the inked-up Converse All Stars that jut from just beneath her proscribed garb.)
And we see another girl, Wadjda's age, back at school the weekend after being married off, sharing photos of herself in her wedding gown. A teacher snatches the snapshots away — photographs are not allowed at school.
Mohammed's charisma and the film's appreciation for the hopefulness of children keep all this 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.
To earn money for the bike, Wadjda improvises some canny capitalism, sometimes taking advantage of older people whose secrets she sees. Later, hoping to win a small fortune, Wadjda crams for a shot at winning a school contest for sura memorization and recitation. The irony is delicious: She hopes to score the cash to rebel, gently, against her theocracy by willing herself into a first-rate conformist. Be ready to bawl at the end.