Wadjda Mohammed is a bit of a pill. Ten years old, she's the type of super-smart, wily, fiercely outgoing little girl whom adults underestimate at their peril.
She knows what she wants, in this case a shiny new green bicycle for sale at the shop down the street. She knows how to work her parents, in this case a mother and father navigating turbulent relationship waters. She can hold her own against her annoyed and repressive principal, who sees in this cheeky student a reminder of her own rebellious spirit at that age.
In the light-hearted yet sobering "Wadjda," the groundbreaking movie bearing her name, we're immersed completely in her world — which just happens to be in Saudi Arabia. (The Fresno Filmworks presentation plays tonight only at the Tower Theatre.)
You might expect that because of Wadjda's religion and where she lives, the setting and the gender roles expected of a 10-year-old girl would consume the film. While director Haifaa Al-Mansour clearly has broader (and fascinating) themes to examine in this wonderfully constructed and compelling cinematic outing, the real strength is the razor-sharp focus on Wadjda. It gives the talented young actress playing her, Waad Mohammed, the opportunity to create a beautifully rendered character.
Something of a tomboy, Wadjda pines for a bicycle so she can race against the neighbor boy, Abdullah (a very fine Abdullrahman Al Gohani).
Her mother (Reem Abdullah), distracted by the possibility that her husband will take a second wife, says a bike is not appropriate for a girl.
At school, Wadjda enters a Koran contest to earn money to pay for the bike herself. Always the conservative culture is telling her that girls can't do the things she wants to do.
"Wadjda" counts for all kinds of firsts. It's the first feature-length film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. And it's the first Saudi film to be written and directed by a woman.
What gives the film such sparkle is how deeply it immerses us in the life of a remarkable little girl.
“Wadjda,” rated PG. Stars Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah. Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. In Arabic with English subtitles. A Fresno Filmworks presentation at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. today (Nov. 8), Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave. Tickets: $10 and $8. Grade: B+
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and at @donaldbeearts on Twitter.