In 2012, Haifaa al-Mansour proved herself a cinematic revolutionary with her debut film, Wadjda, the first feature film ever directed by a Saudi woman, and the only film to shoot entirely within Saudi Arabia to boot. Now, in The Perfect Candidate, al-Mansour has another heroine who matches her spirit in the form of Doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a suburban doctor who makes a brave and controversial run for a local council seat in order to get the road to her clinic paved. Returning to Saudi Arabia after two unfortunate English-language movies, al-Mansour delivers a warm, sweet, and uplifting ode to making a difference wherever you can.
After Saudi Arabia’s absurd, misogynistic travel laws prevent Maryam from flying to Dubai for a medical conference, she goes to her local council to complain and enters the political world almost by mistake. Finding that she actually has the passion and the platform to seriously run, she recruits her sisters Selma and Sara (Dae Al Hilali and Nora Al Awadh) to put together a campaign against the local three-time incumbent. As far as plotting goes, there’s not much to surprise here, but the insights into the difficulties of being a professional woman in Saudi Arabia are carefully done, enraging without falling into caricature.
Progress and revolution are everywhere in The Perfect Candidate, as much as regressive traditionalism (a morning show host assumes Maryam’s political candidacy has to have something to do with gardening) tries to hold them back. Al-Mansour opens and closes the film with shots of a woman driving, and Maryam comes from a family of musicians who have always faced threats and criticism from fundamentalists. Music plays a big role in a jolly, lighthearted subplot that follows Maryam’s liberal dad as he tours the country with his band. It doesn’t add much to Maryam’s main story, but it is a fun diversion.
Al Zahrani is a compelling lead, strong and driven and just a little naïve, and Maryam’s easy, amusing chemistry with her sisters makes their family instantly relatable, regardless of the cultural differences. With unfussy, unremarkable visuals and sound, The Perfect Candidate doesn’t exactly explode off the screen, but when a film believes this wholeheartedly in the possibility of building a better world, it’s impossible to begrudge it any of its flaws. Go with its flow and it’s a really heartwarming time at the cinema.