Of all Haifaa Al Mansour’s accomplishments in her debut film — not the least of which is being the first woman to direct a feature in Saudi Arabia — her success at re-creating a child’s point of view is especially impressive. Not many filmmakers can do it convincingly, and her knack recalls the early films of the Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi.
But unlike those filmmakers’ guileless innocents, Al Mansour’s 10-year-old Wadjda takes charge of her destiny, challenging the rules of one of the most restrictive countries in the world. More than a critique of Saudi society, “Wadjda” offers a character with universal resonance and appeal.
Played by a revelatory Waad Mohammed, Wadjda might be the most appealing kid in a movie since Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis’s Hushpuppy in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012). First seen among a group of schoolgirls dressed in black, she’s the one in blue tennis shoes who can’t remember the prayers. She’s not the demure and devout type, and spends a lot of time in the office of the school’s rigidly doctrinaire headmistress (Ahd).
But once in the safety of her home, where her mother (Reem Abdullah) seems to tolerate, if not indulge, her nonconformity, she kicks back, puts on a T-shirt inscribed “I’m a catch!,” listens to rock ’n’ roll, and weaves wristbands to sell to her classmates — all activities forbidden in the world outside. Her boldness extends to her neighborhood, where she indulges in a taboo friendship with the boy next door (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and even has the temerity to make plans to buy a bike from the local toy store.
The latter quest, which Wadjda pursues with an exquisitely ironic scheme, turns the film into a cross between Panahi’s blithe “The White Balloon” (1995) and Vittorio De Sica’s grim “Bicycle Thieves” (1948, a.k.a. “The Bicycle Thief”), with optimism barely beating out despair. Wisely, Al Mansour eschews direct commentary for telling detail and poetic composition. The black burkas may be oppressive in the heat, but they do look striking in a long shot of a group of women in the uniformly beige background of desert and dreary buildings, appearing like pen strokes on a sheet of paper.
Although Al Mansour doesn’t make a big deal out of the misogynist injustice of the setting, it hovers everywhere, uncommented on, and its sudden eruptions are shocking. A workman makes a lewd comment to a group of schoolgirls. A chubby 10-year-old gets embarrassed when her teacher mentions the little girl’s recent wedding. And when some students laugh in the schoolyard, they are ushered inside. “Don’t let the men hear you laughing,” they are chided. “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” The world of cinema is richer for the voice of Al Mansour; she speaks for the women of her country, and for people everywhere.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.