Made in Saudi Arabia—a country with no film industry—with a largely German crew, Wadjda catalogs cultural tics and customs in a way that suggests that the intended audience are foreign viewers. This is understandable: Saudi Arabia has no movie theaters, and writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour, a female filmmaker in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive cars, represents a perspective that’s more likely to be taken seriously abroad than at home.
The film, a drama about a young girl who wants to buy a bicycle, doubles as an insider’s guide to Saudi Arabian culture; woven into its scant plot are scenes that show how women shop and get around, how homes are organized and meals are prepared, how male guests never see a household’s female members, how political campaigns are held, how women of all generations dress and act around one another as well as how they carry themselves around men. Perhaps inadvertently, the movie ends up capturing something that American movies have largely lost: a sense of the culturally specific everyday. When a character makes coffee—preparing it in a cezve on a stovetop covered in aluminum foil, then pouring it into a thermos—it registers not merely as a mundane action, but as a process rooted in a very particular set of needs and norms. Recurring close-ups of women’s feet—clad in rebellious sneakers or bare, with toenails painted punk blue—serve as both narrative shorthand and an effective way to convey a culture in which female bodies go largely unseen.
Not all of Wadjda’s social observations are so seamlessly integrated; discussions of child marriage and suicide bombing feel shoehorned in, as though Al-Mansour realized at the last minute that she’d finished the screenplay without mentioning either. And considering how gracefully she is able to summon up a sense of place—dusty streets full of spotlessly clean American SUVs and trucks—her characterizations tend to be disappointingly one-dimensional. Aside from the protagonist, the characters are either villains or victims, written not as people but as expressions of cultural wrongs: the all-suffering mother, the emotionally absent father, the hypocritical principal obsessed with decorum.
What keeps Wadjda from devolving into a sort of heavy-handed cultural show-and-tell is its title character. Played by Waad Mohammed—a newcomer, like most of the cast—she is stubborn, selfish, and a little vindictive. She feels like a real person and, as a result, imbues the film’s most on-the-nose moments—like its climactic Koran reciting competition—with a sense of life and unpredictability.