Wadjda, a film about the oppression and long-imposed inferiority of women in Saudi Arabia, even begins with a downward-tilted, condescending gaze, offering an opening shot of school girls’ feet. One pair is notably different from the others, sporting purple-laced Chuck Taylors instead of the uniform-y patent-leather slip-ons. These, of course, are the feet of the 10-year-old title character (Waad Mohammed), whose rebellious nature is immediately, ham-handedly underlined as a rally cry for all Saudi women. Reluctant to sing in a choral-type lesson among her tuneful classmates, Wadjda is quiet and unengaged, to which an instructor reacts with, “What’s the matter, Wadjda? You don’t want us to hear your voice?” Cut to Wadjda inside her bedroom full of Western-pop-culture décor, listening to Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied.”
This is the kind of deliberate, standard-issue metaphor Wadjda deals in, and it relates to the film’s inherent contradictions regarding conformity. Before long, Wadjda is enrolled in a competition about the importance of exerting vocal dexterity, in the same school that wholly promotes its native society’s silencing of women. Meanwhile, Wadjda, a movie with the paramount purpose of counteracting said silencing, opts to fall in line with a markedly conformist—and markedly Hollywood—structure, thus effectively shooting its supposed objective in the foot.
That’s an exceptional shame, seeing as the film has the distinctions of being the first feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia’s borders, and the first helmed by a female Saudi director. Its maker, Haifaa al-Mansour, spent five years securing financing and overseeing production in the capital of Riyadh, where she often had to direct via walkie-talkie while hiding in a van. You’d think such circumstances would have galvanized al-Mansour to make a more daring film, but instead, she’s made what largely feels like the Saudi equivalent of 1,000 stateside underdog tales.
Though she attends an all-girl school, Wadjda has a male friend her age, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani), who teases her while riding his bike, and fosters a not-so-secret crush. Bent on beating Abdullah in a race, Wadjda pines for a bike of her own, specifically a green one gleaming in the front of a local shop. She can’t afford the bike, nor will her mother (Reem Abdullah) permit the purchase, but her school’s Qu’ran recital contest comes with a cash prize that—whaddaya know—will cover the bike’s cost.
To her credit, al-Mansour does present a variety of female experiences and generational echoes within this custom-driven world, where even the climate is oppressive (“Come tomorrow with your head covered, or I’ll reserve a place in the sun for you,” warns Wadjda’s headmistress, announcing a literal, scorching threat). The headmistress (Ahd Kamel) hypocritically copes with inequality in secret by bedding a man on the side, while Wadjda’s mother refuses to accept that Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is seeking a second wife who might bear him a son and heir. Moreover, though male influence constantly looms, al-Mansour predominantly sidelines her male characters, as if she’s half-attempting to evoke the no-boys-allowed tradition of The Women.
It’s likely and commendable that young girls (or boys) in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will find Wadjda inspiring. But few others should expect much in the way of artful innovation, as Wadjda, with its climactic, scholastic contest, is more Bee Season than Bicycle Thieves. It doesn’t play like reality, but like boilerplate filmic fantasy, and its novel setting and inception struggles seem positioned as a beard—or veil, if you will—to mask its mediocrity. The argument will be made that al-Mansour tamed and diluted her film to make it more widely and universally accessible, but, again, by doing so, she’s defeated her own purposes. It’s not like a film shot stealthily in one’s own restrictive country can’t be made and disseminated without compromise. Just ask Jafar Panahi, whose staggeringly brilliant This Is Not a Film was composed on the sly, smuggled out in a cake, and is without a single saccharine note.