Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda,” the first movie ever filmed entirely within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, told the story of a young Muslim girl who bristled against the restrictive gender norms of her ancient local custom and dreamed of owning a bicycle; it followed someone coming-of-age in a country that seemed aggressively resistant to change. Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate,” which tells the story of a twentysomething Muslim woman who campaigns to win a seat on her town’s municipal council, often feels like a lucid mirror image of the director’s 2012 breakthrough: it follows someone trying to sustain the essence of her identity in a country that’s aggressively coming-of-age. A lot can change in seven years.
Saudi Arabia — as you may have read in the headlines — is making well-publicized strides to join the 21st century. Women have now been granted the right to vote; domestic violence has been recognized as a crime; they’re building a Six Flags. But Saudi Arabia — as you may have read in other, less flattering headlines — also has a tendency to take some violent detours along the winding path towards progress. Told with a light comic touch that’s weighed down by the film’s leaden sense of drama, Al-Mansour’s new film offers a frequently compelling glimpse of how workaday people are negotiating such radical systemic change. “The Perfect Candidate” can feel sedate and disjointed as a broad portrait of empowerment, but this is nothing if not a movie of its time, and it sings — sometimes literally — whenever it hones in on the unique struggle through which Saudi Arabian women might seize upon this historic moment.
“The Perfect Candidate” portrays contemporary Saudi Arabia as a place where laws change faster than hearts; a place where progress makes its way to the media a long time before it trickles down to the streets. For Maryam (Mila Al-Zahrani), a small-town doctor who simply wants to be of service to her patients, that problem is epitomized by one street in particular: the flooded road that leads to her mudbound hospital. Some desperate people can’t even make it to the emergency room doors, and several of the men who manage to slog their way inside refuse to be treated by a woman. Maryam may be allowed to drive a car — she takes a quietly moving degree of pride in her blue sedan, its pristine seats all coated in plastic — but it’s still her “fault” when an injured grandpa would rather die than make eye contact with a female surgeon.
Likewise, Maryam is allowed to travel to Dubai for a crucial medical conference, but the customs agent at the airport won’t let her use her travel visa unless a male guardian signs off on it. That’s how she winds up in the office of a well-connected cousin, a man who mistakenly thinks Maryam is there to run to register for the upcoming municipal elections — a laughable idea, given that very few women even exercise their newfound right to vote (some are conditioned to stay home, while many others are at the mercy of their overbearing husbands). Maryam doesn’t think it’s funny. After all, that road isn’t going to fix itself. And so, with a little begrudging help from her clever sisters Sara and Selma (Nora Al-Awadh and Dae Al-Hilali), and some inspiration from this alarmingly real American campaign ad, Maryam pivots to politics.
“The Perfect Candidate” has all the makings of a boisterous comedy, but Al-Mansour — even with the benefit of a high-concept premise — prefers to keep things at a low boil. Smart and stubborn, Maryam doesn’t see much humor in her situation, and Al-Mansour’s sedate direction reflects the matter-of-factness of her protagonist’s cause. To that end, calling it a “cause” might be inaccurate, as Maryam isn’t much concerned about the societal implications of her campaign; she really just wants to pave that street and make life better for everyone, and she’s massively frustrated that men refuse to see the obvious through the veil of their own misogyny.
Maryam isn’t a martyr, and she never speaks a bad word about the Muslim rituals that Al-Mansour renders in domestically loving detail. Indeed, she resents the fact that her musician father (Shafi Al-harthy) has always been so eager to push back against cultural taboos, and she really resents that he’s gone on a now-legal national tour while she’s running her campaign (Al-Mansour flatly depicts several of these beautiful performances in full). Her dad’s band has the government’s permission to play, but their shows are still threatened by radical extremists — even for men, new laws tend to outpace the national landscape.
Curiously, Al-Mansour and Brad Niemann’s unhurried script never stresses the commonalities between these characters, as “The Perfect Candidate” is so determined not to belabor the point that it almost fails to make one in the first place. Maryam’s feelings towards her father are left underdeveloped, which only grows more frustrating as the film continues to cut between its separate plots. At times it feels like a sad concession to a familial divide that can never be crossed; at other times it reads more like an inelegant attempt to graph a clear dramatic arc onto a movie that has a bone-deep respect for the slow process of actual change.
Even less of a fuss is made about Maryam’s dead mother, though an early scene in which the heroine breaks the Ramadan fast with her remaining family is heavy with her absence. It’s an absence that Maryam and her sisters do their best to fill for each other, and “The Perfect Candidate” beautifully renders the loving trepidation of their shared bond. The film reveals one of the girls to be a tech wizard without reducing her to an easy joke, while the baby of the family is as inspired by her big sis as she is scared of losing her to the job she wants.
The scenes between them, like the scenes in which Maryam goes in public to promote her campaign, tend to unfold with a natural ease. The direction is subtle, the camerawork unintrusive, and the drama unwilling to call attention to itself whenever possible. Al-Mansour refuses to force the issue and turn this into a farce; she prefers wry smiles to genuine laughs, and one-yard gains to hail Mary throws, as if humming the right melody were preferable to singing one false note. The result is a movie as brave and humble as its heroine, one that gently threads the needle between a realistic today and a better tomorrow. It isn’t always engaging, but it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, the perfect candidate is really just someone who’s able to get the job done.
“The Perfect Candidate” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.