ONE NIGHT ONLY – Tuesday, January 14 at 7 pm

An enterprising Saudi girl signs on for her school’s Koran recitation competition as a way to raise the remaining funds she needs in order to buy the green bicycle that has captured her interest.

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour (as Haifaa Al Mansour)
Writer: Haifaa Al-Mansour (as Haifaa Al Mansour)
Stars: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani


You can tell that Wadjda is a rebel by looking at her feet. The other students at her all-girls madrassa in Saudi Arabia accessorize their long, shapeless gray dresses with black Mary Janes and frilly socks, but Wadjda, a lanky 10-year-old with big eyes and an easy smile, favors black Converse high-tops, a small gesture of spirited individuality in a world that seems organized to suppress any such expression.

She also is determined to have her own bicycle, something that, while not quite forbidden, is nonetheless strongly discouraged in Saudi society. At the edge of adolescence, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is discovering the severe limitations placed on women in the name of custom, Islam and family honor. That discovery — and the tricky mixture of resistance and accommodation it provokes in this smart, stubborn girl — is the subject of Haifaa al-Mansour’s sharply observed, deceptively gentle film, reportedly the first feature ever directed by a Saudi woman.

“Wadjda” is circumspect about putting forth any overt criticisms of mosque or state. Instead, the movie presents the facts of its heroine’s life — and also, more obliquely, the lives of her mother, classmates and teachers — with calm authority and devastating effectiveness.

Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) has a job, but she can’t control the money she earns or drive herself to work. And she worries that since she has not borne him a son, her husband will take a second wife. Wadjda, who adores her father, is dismayed to discover that his branch of the family tree is devoid of leaves because only boys are counted in that way.

Older girls at school are punished for possessing magazines or makeup, and one is expelled for sneaking out to meet a boy. Wadjda still lives in a protected, relatively free zone of childhood and is unprepared for life as a second-class citizen. Her best friend is a boy — she wants a bike so she can beat him in a race — and it is heartbreaking to contemplate that their easy companionship must soon come to an end.

There is other heartbreak hovering over Ms. Mansour’s decorous, deliberate scenes. The difficulties facing Saudi women are hinted at rather than explored in depth, as are their strategies of adaptation, self-protection and subtle subversion. But because of Wadjda herself, the film is more buoyant than grim.

Immune to self-pity, she devises a plan to blend rebellion and obedience. When the headmistress announces a Koran-reciting contest with a cash prize, Wadjda sees a chance to acquire the bicycle of her dreams while at the same time overcoming her reputation as a troublemaker. This is a shrewd strategy, but also a bit of magical thinking. The rules don’t bend so easily, and Wadjda, clever as she is, has not quite grasped the extent to which they are rigged against her.

With impressive agility, “Wadjda” finds room to maneuver between harsh realism and a more hopeful kind of storytelling. There is warmth as well as austerity in Wadjda’s world, kindness as well as cruelty, and the possibility, modestly sketched and ardently desired, of change.

-A.O. Scott, NY TIMES