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Wadjda (Blu-ray Review)

17 Feb, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
Box Office $1.35 million
$40.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Rated ‘PG’ for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking.
In Arabic with English subtitles.
Stars Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah.

The irrepressible Saudi Arabian sass-giver here longs to own a bicycle, but she’s only 10 and dealing with a culture more attuned to a time before the wheel was invented. So as one who got a gene that’s missing from just about every other girl in her school, she rebels against everyone who says that bikes are only for boys — something akin, perhaps, to what writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour must have done as well because this is the first feature film made by a Saudi female. On the other hand, it was the country’s official entry for the Academy Awards (no ultimate nomination, though some thought it might get one), so it must not have shamed the power structure that much.

The most enjoyable aspect here is that young Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is something of a conniver and even wheeler-dealer, one who looks out for old No. 1 (herself). The authority figure charged with bridling her — one automatically more interesting once we learn she has at least one rumored transgression in her own private life — admits a similarity to Wadjda when she was the same age. But this doesn’t mean that the latter doesn’t find herself in someone’s office all the time facing some sort of disciplinary action. The school’s administrative staff probably ought to be put on a retainer.

Wadjda is pals with a boy (more trouble) who has his own bike, and part of the motivation to get her own set of wheels is the chance to beat him in a race or try. In a similar vein, the youngster also has little use for the society’s sanctioned head coverings and likes listening to taboo music (as a big-screen window into Saudi culture, and there haven’t been many, we see that video games, cell phones and what looks at least something like a mall culture are alive and well in capital city Riyadh). Meanwhile, Wadjda’s attractive mother tries to be a disciplinarian but doesn’t always convince that her heart is totally into it because she has her own problems and distractions: Wadjda’s father isn’t around much in this stacked-decked society because he’s been contemplating taking a second wife. This said, he and his daughter get along well.

This is another of those releases where the production’s backstory rivals what’s on screen, a subject addressed in a director’s commentary, making-of featurette (a little longer than half-an-hour) and a Q&A with the filmmaker taped at a Directors Guild of America gathering. Saudi Arabia is a country where cinemas aren’t allowed — and because women aren’t supposed to mingle with men at least out in the open, Al Mansour had to direct a lot of the time from a van conveying her instructions to a third party by walkie-talkie. Government schools said “no way” when it came to filming, so a private school with the right physical specs had to be found to substitute. Lucking into the right lead actress was apparently a photo finish because the other hopefuls weren’t “cheeky” enough (the director’s word). From all evidence, including what we see on screen, actress Mohammed was very much like the character she’s portraying, and one wonders what her lot will be like in Saudi Arabia by the time she grows up (Al Mansour says things are improving). And the movie had German producers who had, says Al Mansour, a different kind of work ethic in that they were more intense (now, there’s a surprise).

Had Wadjda gotten its Oscar nomination, there might have been a little mild backlash from those moviegoers who really cover the waterfront because its charms are modest. And yet, it isn’t one of those humanist coffee table movies geared to make you a better; it is, in fact, kind of edgy in its own way. Praise notwithstanding (a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating isn’t to be sniffed at), I didn’t expect it to linger in the mind quite as much. If it’s not Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, you can certainly mention it in a breath with my beloved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (which was another debut feature, come to think). In fact, Pee-wee and Waad Mohammed would make a beguiling team if there are any casting directors out there seeking to make their reputations. And I am only half-kidding on the juvenile sidekick level.

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