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The first feature-length film from a female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, “Wadjda” earns extra points just for being what it is. Who knew that, in a country that famously frowns on women driving cars, some are even allowed to make movies?

The nicest surprise: “Wadjda” is considerably more than a competent entertainment. Indeed, like some of the early Iranian films, it’s a charming, liberating look at a society that seems not so distant from our own.

Haifaa al-Mansour, who learned film technique by watching videos (movie theaters were once banned in her country), is given full credit for writing and directing this fictional picture, which deals quite frankly with adolescent rebellion in a suburb of Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.

The heroine, Wadjda, is 10, going on 15. Irrepressibly played by Waad Mohammed, her major goal in life is to own a shiny green bicycle, even if the conformist adults think she’s crazy to want it. Like plenty of kids her age, she listens to the radio and “evil songs” that demonstrate that the generation gap lives.

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Her conservative mother (soulfully played by Reem Abdullah), who is facing the possibility of becoming a second wife (she can’t provide a male heir), won’t have anything to do with the bike. And when Wadjda is discouraged from associating with her friend and rival, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), he inevitably becomes a force in her life.

The most intimate/ironic moment belongs to Wadjda and her father (Sultan Al Assaf). They reconcile and demonstrate their love for each other, only to be interrupted by an insistent cellphone.

The script develops quite a bit of tension around Wadjda’s plans to make money to pay for the bike — especially when she starts studying in earnest for a Koran recitation contest that wouldn’t ordinarily be her thing. The finale manages to mix realism and wish-fulfillment without hitting a false note.

John Hartl:

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