Wadjda is 10. She wants to buy herself a bicycle so she can win a grudge race against a neighborhood boy, but has to find a way to hustle the money while going to a Saudi religious school that takes a dim view of fun and games. "There's your problem right there," as they say on the Internet.
A movie is truly exciting when it shows you something you've never seen before. You'd think this would most often be sci-fi, but it isn't, because they use the same grey metal corridor all the time, in everything. "Wadjda" is, because it reveals a world that almost nobody gets to see even if they want to - and a very large number of Americans won't look at even if you show it to them, because they're scared of catching "stealth jihad."
This is hilarious, because the hard cases who run Saudi Arabia - like Wadjda's head-mistress - ban bracelets, magazines and tapes of love songs for fear that any exposure to those things will infect their students with whorish Western culture. Either one side overestimates the power of the other's influence, or both do, or perhaps the two sides would flip and trade places, with Riyadh turning into Miami on spring break and Burning Man banning women from pedaling their own concept tricycles.
The latter probably won't happen, so if you're not afraid of Islam cooties, watch this movie and you will find an extraordinary treat for the curious. It shows Saudi women in their domestic lives, before and after they put on the "space suit" to head out. It shows how the gender-based class system works in general, while drawing characters who began to feel like my relatives after half an hour. Wadjda was my kick-ass little niece, and her mom was my sister-in-law, and I wished there was a way for me to call them up and say something encouraging. I wished there was a way to send them stuff - I'd give Wadjda an iPod full of Pink Floyd and death metal, and I would give her mom the robot taxi from Total Recall, the one that looks like there's a man driving it.
This movie passes the Bechdel test summa cum laude, as one might expect; its sensitivity and realism means that technically (since this is the first movie ever to be shot entirely in that country), the Saudi Arabian film industry now has a better average track record with female characters than Hollywood does. The relationship between Wadjda and her mom involves some yelling, but is sweet and wonderful through and through.
The movie never criticizes the social regime of its country, but it doesn't have to - even played completely straight, it looks horrendous. This is the most sexist society on earth, and Wadjda's school is like an alien experiment run by creatures that hate joy in all forms.
"Wadjda" itself, however, is pure joy. It works on every level - as drama, slice of life, children's movie, movie about children & an insider look at Saudi Arabia. It's an awesome movie.
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