A simple story told with economy, "Wadjda" is a notable example of old-school, humanistic filmmaking. It's also genuinely groundbreaking: the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first film directed by a Saudi woman.
Handsomely made and well-acted, Haifaa Al Mansour's film focuses on an independent-minded 10-year-old girl and has an unmistakable feminist theme, but it's in no way sentimental or sanctimonious.
The title character (played outstandingly by Waad Mohammed) is enough of a free spirit to listen to pop music at home and wear tennis shoes to her conservative school, much to the dislike of her scowling principal (Ahd). When her good pal Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) acquires a bicycle, she wants one, too, mainly so she can beat him in a race.
Her mother (Reem Abdullah) won't hear of it -- by custom, girls simply don't ride bikes. Wadjda decides to buy one on her own, but her money-making schemes fail. She hits on the idea of entering the school's Quran-reciting contest, which offers a cash prize and also promises to put her in good with the principal, who considers her a rebel.
Mom has her own issues. She's a teacher, but, because a woman can't drive herself to work, she has to contend with a cantankerous male chauffeur. More importantly, since she's unable to bear another child, she's afraid her husband (Sultan Al Assaf), who wants a son, will take a second wife.
Without hectoring, the film makes numerous points about the status of women of all ages in Saudi Arabia. Exhorting Wadjda to speak modestly, the principal tells her, "A woman's voice is her nakedness."
Any overt sign of a girl's emerging womanhood must be kept far from the male gaze, and an air of sexual repression permeates the school. Yet Wadjda and some of her peers still engage in what to Westerners would be mild acts of disobedience. They are perhaps allowed the smallest bits of slack because of their age, but for adult women, things are more difficult.
The female-run school also suggests that women have at least some complicity in their own repression, but the film even accords the stiff-necked principal a measure of sympathy.
Wadjda is well aware of the gender obstacles, but is never beaten down. She refuses to deny her friendship with Abdullah, who clearly admires her high spirits.
While the film quietly makes many telling points about a heavy-handed culture, it also gives us something positive in the end, the possibility of change. There is decided hope for the future in young people like this.
In Arabic with English subtitles.
(Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)