In Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour's winsome wonder "Wadjda," a young girl's aspirations provide an intimate glimpse into the possibilities and limitations of a cloaked culture.

Ten-year-old Wadjda lives in a suburb of Saudi Arabia's capitol, Riyadh, with her mother and, less and less, her father.

She's a spirited kid, a bit of smirker, a wheeler-dealer. Beneath her ankle-length abaya, she sports jeans and Chuck Taylors with purple laces. She sells classmates woven bracelets in the colors of soccer teams. Grouplo ve's pop hit "Tongue Tied" buzzes from her headphones.

The Wright brothers saw the possibility of flight, of liberation, in a bicycle. So does director-screenwriter al-Mansour.

Played with natural verve by Waad Mohammed, Wadjda spies freedom atop a pickup that drops its precious cargo at a nearby toy store. She wants the green bike in part to race friend Abdullah (charmer Abdullrahman al-Gohani). That fugitive yearning is the heart of this delight.

When the plug is pulled on her entrepreneurial enterprise, Wadjda enters into a Koran-recitation contest that comes with prize money.

The first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (where cinemas are banned), by a female director no less, "Wadjda" isn't incendiary, which makes it feel all the more deftly revealing.

Mansour isn't concerned with victimization or villainy. The female characters are complicated, complicit even.

Wadjda's mother (Saudi TV star Reem Abdullah) is painfully aware that her unseen mother-in-law is busy arranging her son's second marriage, one meant to lead to a new offshoot of the family tree, a boy.

With a scowl creasing her lovely face, Saudi actress Ahd (a film director herself) portrays the principal of Wadjda's all-girl school. Rumor has it she her own story of trespass, the sort of personal saga that makes her harshness all the more vexing.

Men experience constraints. Wadjda's handsome father (Sultan al-Assaf of the beguiling dimples) indulges his daughter's spunk and sings the praises of his first wife even as he heads toward a second marriage. And al-Mansour leaves room for young Abdullah to grow, too.

If moments between Wadjda and her mother are fraught, it's because the mother is struggling with her own place in a hemmed-in society.

Still, an incandescent scene comes as the two sit on the rooftop of their home. Across the street, a wedding is taking place. Out of sight, their hair uncovered and blown gently by the nighttime breeze, they sit, talk and dream.

— Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post


Sun February 9, 2014, 7:30 only, Muenzinger Auditorium

Saudi Arabia, 2012, in Arabic, Color, 98 min, 1.78:1, Rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking, DP • official site



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