Bicycles can mean everything in the movies: a livelihood threatened (Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves"), a speedy source of open-air comedy (Jacques Tati's "Jour de Fete"), a means of escape (the recent Dardenne brothers' heartbreaker "The Kid With a Bike"). In "Wadjda," the first narrative feature from Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, the thought of a shiny new bike — something culturally discouraged for use by girls or women in the restrictive Saudi kingdom — energizes every thought in the head of the 10-year-old title character, whose purple-laced Chuck Taylor high-tops are enough to mark her as a rebel.
The woman behind "Wadjda" is writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour, also a rebel in her homeland. (She grew up in a small Saudi village, the eighth of 12 children; she studied in Egypt and Australia and now lives with her American diplomat husband and their two children in Bahrain.) There are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia, though Saudi television is allowing for a gradually wider range of depictions of Saudi life. "Wadjda" works quietly and well in its story of a young protagonist questioning the restrictive status quo.
The filmmaker covers considerable ground in 97 minutes. The girl, played by newcomer Waad Mohammed, lives with her mother, portrayed by popular Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah. The mother has her mind on her marriage to a man who, denied a son, has begun looking for a second wife. Wadjda, meantime, cannot take her eyes off the bright green bike at the local store. Cost: 800 riyals, a little more than $200.
That's a lot, and Wadjda has ideas on how to raise it, among them selling homemade bracelets to classmates. Then comes news of a potential windfall. Her fearsome disciplinarian of an instructor (played by a striking actress, Ahd) announces a Quran recitation competition, complete with prize money.
To mother and daughter, the bike is all: Wadjda wants to prove to a neighborhood boy she can outrace him; the mother will have none of it. "As long as I live," the girl's mother tells her, "you won't get one." Cannily, for both dramatic and political reasons, Mansour refuses to villainize the mother, who mostly desires her daughter to live a life unbesmirched by scrutiny.
As with so much filmmaking from so many censorious cultures, in "Wadjda" one senses the presence of invisible boundaries, establishing what can and cannot be addressed on screen. The director, not yet 40, has just begun to explore what she can do with her camera (at present her technique's solid if rather indistinct). But she's clearly a pro at dealing in actors of various skill levels. In the scenes between mother and daughter in their apartment, the world outside no longer judging every action, new worlds open up. And therein lies the cinema's role in our lives: It reveals what is concealed to others.
"Wadjda"- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking)
Running time: 1:37