Haifaa al-Mansour is the first woman director to get a feature film exported from her native Saudi Arabia, and it seems as if she's aiming to be the last. Her portrait of a misogynistic Muslim society isn't shrill, but it makes its central point -- that it's impossible to be an innocent when you grow up in a world of double standards and hypocrisy.
The title character, the preternaturally saucy and self-possessed Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), wears black Converse sneakers and a defiant look that instinctively puts the adult world on edge. She wants a bicycle: A bike represents freedom, flight and everything girls can't do. Like the classic Iranian movie fables of the '90s -- in which kid heroes obsessed about new shoes or white balloons -- "Wadjda" invests itself in a single symbol of longing and metaphorical meaning, while using it to represent all that's wrong with society. Among the reasons Wadjda can't have a bike is that her mother thinks it will take her virginity. Such a response is symptomatic of Wadjda's world at large. When you're obsessed with "sin," everything becomes prurient.
At the same time, her classmates are being married off -- one brings pictures of her wedding to class and is chastised because photos aren't allowed in school, unlike married 11-year-olds. For a girl like Wadjda, the oppressive inconsistencies don't cultivate respect and obedience, but rebellion. When the time comes for the "religious competition" (the robotic recitation of the Koran), she decides to learn the verses, and win the money to buy her bike.
The primitivism of "Wadjda" -- the awkward acting, clumsy shots, sequences with raggedy trailing edges -- seems a bit premeditated, a striving for parable-like simplicity. In other words, Al-Mansour seems out to make a movie that works in America. Which is likely a savvy move, since it seems unlikely she's going to get much traction back home.
PLOT Spunky young Saudi Arabian wants to turn the table on her oppressors, and buy a bicycle.
RATING PG (thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking)
CAST Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd.
BOTTOM LINE Deliberately rustic film that makes the costs of theocratic sexism very clear. (In Arabic with English subtitles)