Haifaa Al-Mansour deserves some sort of award for not only managing to make a film in a country in which cinemas themselves have been banned for decades, but also one in which women are prohibited from simple(r) tasks like driving, let alone directing feature films. Al Mansour’s titular character bears the same rebellious spirit; a young Saudi girl who, when we first see her, is donning a pair of Converse All-Stars, and unlike most of her classmates, is clueless when engaged in a sing-along by her head-strong, authoritative teachers.
Continuing to flout school procedure, loitering where she shouldn’t be and failing to wear her head scarf, Al-Mansour’s thoroughly likeable protagonist helps stage a charming coming out party for talented young actress Waad Mohammed, who has to weather the storm of duelling feminist perspectives in a developing country. Tarred with the brush of guilt by her stern educators, who view western music as “evil”, and assured by her mother – who may be going through more strife than her daughter is aware of – that riding a bicycle is something only boys should be doing, the question Al-Mansour appears to ask, then, is whether bicycles and nail polish need be firmly inextricable from a path of faith.
It’s not merely Wadjda’s status as a victim of unbearable oppression that makes us warm to her, though; her precociousness, her keenness to cheekily defy the authority of a questionable system (at best) and enjoy childhood as any child should, will likely evoke warm nostalgia and appreciation of adults’ own upbringing, and the film might also be a suitable feature to show children in order to reinforce notions of equality and tolerance (if also harness their rebellious side). The finale – a competition between students – is particularly amusing, incisively skewering the dubious nature of religious zealously. In the end, it’s a sweet film about family and being true to yourself that’ll have you leaving the cinema wearing a grin, even as it concedes the seemingly immovable nature of the country’s social constructs.
The mere completion of Al-Mansour’s film is a towering achievement in itself; that it’s also got charm and heart to spare is icing on the cake.
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