LOS ANGELES - The first feature to be shot in Saudi Arabia, and directed by a woman to boot, "Wadjda" is a remarkable film twice over. We are fortunate to have it for both of those reasons, but it's hard not to wish the result was even better.
While the uniqueness of the film's Riyadh setting and the disturbing nature of "Wadjda's" depictions of life for women behind the Saudi curtain are thoroughly involving, the actual plotline of a 10-year-old girl's determination to own a bicycle can be as standard as it sounds.
Given the circumstances of "Wadjda's" creation, that result may not be surprising. Writer-director Haifaa Mansour has said she made the film not because she burned to tell this particular story but rather because "I wanted to give the intellectual debate a human face. ... It was important to me that the story was an accurate portrayal of the situation of women in Saudi Arabia." The bigger picture was the driving force, and that is what "Wadjda" is best at conveying.
So even though the film's through-line follows young Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) as she gets fixated on the idea of owning a bike in a culture that frowns on that activity for girls, the character is less interesting in herself than as a conduit through which we see the severe difficulties faced by her mother (Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah) and other girls who are friends at school and have more serious problems.
In a culture where women are not allowed to drive, Wadjda's mother's livelihood is at the mercy of the driver who takes her and other women from home to work and back. Worse than this is the mother's situation in relation to her husband (Sultan Al Assaf).
Although Wadjda's parents clearly care for each other, their marriage has not produced a son and the norms of society, not to mention the influence of his mother, are pressuring the father to take a second wife. Wadjda's mother is far from happy about this ("I'm the original brand," she says to him. "Why are you leaving for an imitation?"), but in this world, her options are severely limited.
Also disturbing are situations Wadjda becomes tangentially involved in at her strict state-run girls' school, headed by the unbending Miss Hussa (the actress Ahd, who goes by one name). Her classmates can get into serious trouble for chaste meetings with boys, and even for being what school officials view as suspiciously close to their girlfriends.
As to Wadjda herself, although still a child she is frequently reprimanded for allowing her head to go uncovered and chided severely for talking loudly in public where men can hear her. "A woman's voice is her nakedness," Miss Hussa says, and she couldn't be more serious.
Also involving is the great divide we see in Saudi culture between public and private space. While what goes on inside Wadjda's house is quite familiar - she listens to rock music, her dad plays video games - in the street, women are obliged to wear the totally enclosing combination of the abaya body garment and niqab head covering.
Although it is in one sense of a piece with all of this, Wadjda's determination to flaunt convention and get a bike so she can race her neighborhood pal Abdullah (Abdullrahman Gohani) is more generic than involving, especially compared with the more accomplished neo-realist films (the Dardenne brothers' "Rosetta" and Jafar Panahi's "Offside") the director has mentioned as inspirations.
It also doesn't help that Wadjda herself is a cliche rebel, a headstrong, borderline bratty type whose smart-mouth attitude is supposed to charm us with its spunk but also can irritate by its rudeness. A little of this goes a long way, especially in a film that has such a leisurely pace.
That said, it is important to remember "Wadjda" is made by a first-time feature director working under great constraints in a country where movie theaters are illegal. Her script does contain a number of unexpected elements, including a Koran recitation competition, and it gets stronger as it goes along. Drawbacks and all, it's heartening to have "Wadjda" around.
Rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf, Abdullrahman Gohani and Ahd. Directed by Haifaa Mansour. Rated PG (97 minutes).