CHICAGO – “Drinking Buddies” director Joe Swanberg’s latest release of the same star wattage is “Happy Christmas,” an even lower-fi story than the Olivia Wilde beer comedy, steered even more by the casting that it was able to assemble. However, with this movie Swanberg doesn’t so much worry about having a story that could be confused with a more mainstream romantic comedy if it were to have a bigger budget.
‘Wadjda’ Captures Story of Memorable Young Heroine
CHICAGO – Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” is a deceptive film. It feels like a relatively slight story in that it’s about a headstrong girl who wants a bike. That’s it. Pretty simple stuff. And yet it’s not simple at all in Wadjda’s part of the world. She is a 10-year-old Saudi girl and not only are Saudi girls not supposed to ride bikes, they’re not supposed to even show their faces if men could possibly be in their line of sight. With a strong breakthrough performance at its core, “Wadjda” is a film about how cultural and social revolution starts quietly in neighborhoods and homes where girls want to ride bikes.
Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) works hard, forced to ride in a car with broken air conditioning for hours just to makes ends meet as Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is absent for weeks at a time. It’s unclear the extent of the relationship between Wadjda’s parents and part of it could be cultural confusion but her father is regularly gone and it feels like her mother is still courting him to be the partner with whom he eventually settles down. Wadjda’s mother also clearly has not given her daughter as traditional of an upbringing as some others. We first see her listening to pop music, making mix tapes – an activity that already feels like a bit of gender revolution.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
As she walks to school, Wadjda plays with a local boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who teases her and tries to take her food, as kids do around the world when they really like each other. Wadjda sees a bike at a local store that she wants to buy to beat Abdullah in racing around the neighborhood. Girls like Wadjda don’t ride bikes and don’t have the money to buy new ones. And there are few ways in this society for her to get the money that would be culturally approved. She begins to run some schemes at school, avoiding the repercussions of Ms. Hussa (Ahd), a woman forced to enforce gender-based restrictions who one senses sees a little bit of her younger self in Wadjda anyway.
Wadjda realizes that the prize money at a school competition based on who knows their Koran the best could pay for the bike. That storytelling conceit alone is pretty brilliant. Wadjda will use knowledge of the tenets of her religion and culture to get what her religion and culture deny her.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Waad Mohammed plays Wadjda with such unforced ease that one can easily forget that it’s a performance. She seems so completely comfortable in this character that she feels three-dimensional at all times. Wadjda knows well the restrictions of her culture but she gently pushes the boundaries of them to live the life she wants. When the girls in the play yard see that there are men in the distance who could possibly see them, they run inside. Wadjda stays to finish playing hopscotch. It’s such a minor thing but it’s significant character development on the filmmaker’s part. Wadjda says the right things and does most of the right things but knows where she can push the envelope.
There’s such ease to the filmmaking and performances in “Wadjda” that it’s not surprising that it’s become one of the most acclaimed films of the year internationally. The cast is uniformly believable, giving the story the feeling of truth. I wish there was a bit more drama to the film as some of the narrative feels almost too slight, too polite in the way it approaches its subject matter. Yet I think that’s part of the point. Not all revolution starts with violence or even outrage. Sometimes it starts with a game of hopscotch.