A young girl sets her mind on getting a bicycle.
That is the driving narrative engine of the movie Wadjda. If that sounds overly simplistic, be assured, it is not.
Wadjda, the movie's plucky 10-year-old heroine, lives in Saudi Arabia, specifically in a suburb of Riyadh. In that kingdom, remember, women aren't allowed to drive cars. And while there are no apparent laws against distaff bicycling, the activity is clearly frowned upon as an suitable activity for a young lady.
That does not deter Wadjda (the utterly charming Waad Mohammed) despite the admonitions of her beautiful mother (Saudi TV star Reem Abdullah) who warns: "You won't be able to have children if you ride a bike."
But Wadjda is possessed of an unseemly competitive streak. Her male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) has a bicycle. How is she ever going to beat him in a race if she doesn't have a bike of her own?
Alas, the cost is prohibitive. Wadjda is adept at hustling money by selling bracelets and acting as a message-carrying go-between for illicit lovers. But to raise serious funds, Wadjda sets her mind on entering a Qur'an recitation contest. Her teachers, whose default setting regarding this kid is usually stuck at censorious disapproval, are impressed by her sudden interest in religious matters.
At home, Wadjda is subject to stresses of a more mysterious nature. She adores her father, a rarely seen but powerful presence in her life. He reciprocates her affection, but there are limits. When she pins her own name to a picture depicting the family tree, he removes it. This symbolic plant is for men only.
Her mother, meanwhile, frets over his fidelity. It takes a while to realize she is not worried about him taking a mistress, but a second wife... one who will give him a male heir.
This seems a simple human drama, and on one level, it is. Female writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour tells the story in a straightforward, unaffected style, letting the characters reveal themselves by their actions, and eschewing any heavy-handed proselytizing.
But if the approach is disarmingly gentle, the message seems downright radical given the realm in which the story takes place.
This is reportedly the first feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia. It is simply stunning that it would be a film that so courageously addresses the inequities facing women and girls, encompassing driving restrictions (Wadjda's mother is routinely inconvenienced by the driver she is obliged to hire) and the everyday oppressions of school life, compared to the freedoms afforded men, including male workers shouting pervy comments at our 10-year-old heroine.
But it speaks to a hopefulness that change is at hand, reflected not just in Wadjda's own small triumphs in the context of the movie, but in al-Mansour's ability to get this film made at all.