There’s something about a kid on a bike—that combination of innocence, exploration, and autonomous forward motion—that’s always been a natural subject of cinema, from De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves to Spielberg’s E.T. to the Dardenne brothers’, well, Kid With a Bike. Wadjda—the first full-length feature film to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first feature from the female director Haifaa Al-Mansour—turns a little girl’s quest to earn the money for her own bicycle into a poignant fable about growing up female (and growing up, period) in a place where women’s autonomy is severely restricted. It’s a stunningly assured debut, a slyly subversive delight, and one of my favorite movies of the year so far.
Tomboyish 10-year-old Wadjda (played by the charming Waad Mohammed, a 12-year-old in her first film role) lives with her parents in a middle-class suburb of Riyadh. Her mother (Reem Abdullah), a beautiful, sheltered woman with traditional Islamic values, lives in fear that her dashing husband, an oil-rig employee who’s away from home for long periods at a time, will take a second wife to give him the son she’s no longer able to have. Wadjda attends a religious girls’ school where instruction centers around memorizing the Quran, and whose rigid headmistress (played with scary intensity by the single-named actress Ahd) is always on the lookout for signs of impious or unladylike behavior.
After spotting a beautiful green bike mounted on the roof of a passing car, Wadjda becomes obsessed with the idea of owning one of her own, even though cultural custom frowns upon the notion. (“You won’t ever be able to have children if you ride a bike,” her mother warns her.) Wadjda convinces a neighbor boy with a crush on her (Abdullrahman al Gohani) to teach her to ride in secret and begins running various small-time scams at school to raise the money for the bicycle she so covets.
When Wadjda hears about a Quran-reciting contest at school with a cash prize, her previous lack of enthusiasm for religious instruction gives way to competitive fervor. She’s always been an indifferent student, not to mention anything but devout—alone in her room, she listens to forbidden American pop songs, and from under the hem of her black abaya peeks a pair of beat-up Chuck Taylors. But with the prospect of finally owning that bike on the table, Wadjda devotes herself to learning to chant scripture with an energy that delights both her headmistress and her mother—even if, unbeknownst to them, for all the wrong reasons.
I won’t reveal any more about Wadjda and her quest, because this is a movie whose pleasures unfold on a miniature scale: a meaningful glance between two schoolgirls or a shared moment of forbidden freedom can constitute plot points in and of themselves. As simple as the story seems on the surface, there’s sharp social commentary embedded in every scene: Wadjda’s perpetually frustrated longing to obtain her own set of wheels, for example, finds its double in her mother’s resentment of the boorish chauffeur she must hire to drive her across town every day.
Though the parallels she draws are never heavy-handed, Al-Mansour’s message is subtly radical. This isn’t a fist-shaking feminist manifesto but a sympathetic portrait of a hidebound patriarchal culture in gradual transition to greater openness. (Though Al-Mansour sometimes had to direct via walkie-talkie from inside a van so as not to scandalize onlookers by publicly ordering around men, she made the film with the approval of the Saudi government, and it may be shown on Saudi television—movie theaters having been banned in the kingdom since conservative clerics took over in the mid-1980s.) The last few scenes may not reinvent the wheel as far as plot resolution goes, but I defy you not to choke up at them—or to resist feeling your heart lift in the few brief moments when this film allows its spirited young heroine the chance to pedal down a dusty Riyadh street with the wind in her hair.