In “The Perfect Candidate,” the fourth feature film from Haifaa al-Mansour, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a plucky young Saudi Arabian doctor, makes an impulsive decision to run for her local municipal council seat. In a nation where women are not even welcome to openly address a congregation of men, it’s an incredibly bold decision, even though the last decade has seen a series of changes and firsts for women in Saudi Arabia, and a relaxing of strict laws around women and travel, driving, and employment. Maryam and her two sisters belong to this younger generation of women, and Al-Mansour herself serves as a powerful symbol of transforming times in her nation: she has the claim of being the nation’s first female filmmaker.
As a doctor in an overcrowded local walk-in clinic, Maryam carries herself with admirable confidence, scolding elderly men she treats in her clinic who refuse a female doctor. But she meets obstacles frequently, resenting that she can’t aspire to higher aims in the medical field or find a chance to prove her worth to her society at large. By sheer accident, she stumbles across an application to run for office; in her frustration, she hits on a revelation: she will run on a one-issue platform that has nothing to do with gender. She wants to repair the road to the local clinic where she works, where flooding regularly waylays patients in need of care.
Filmed with a gentle, roving eye and a matter-of-fact tone that avoids sentiment, al-Mansour most often shows Saudi women in their own company. We see them enjoying themselves through singing, dancing, and laughing together, and music is positioned as a crucial tool for community and joy. When Maryam holds her own women-only fundraiser, she stages a niqāb fashion show, offering a pointed and positive representation of a garment that has been fraught with negative political meaning. The relationships of these women can sometimes be marred by gossip and judgment (ask Maryam’s teenage sister), but they are for the most part encouraging.
Much of “The Perfect Candidate” focuses on the connective tissue between the three siblings, who have not long ago lost their mother and also have a close relationship with their musician father. The film’s depiction of the family is a loving one, where any lack of support or off-handed remark is quickly backtracked. It’s a borderline idyllic set-up–and maybe a touch rose-tinted–but it’s ultimately very rewarding to watch something so pleasant about family life. Even if Maryam has no experience in politics and little actual chance of winning, her dogged DIY spirit is infectious, and it’s hard not to love her.
The film falls down a little bit in the way it reconciles Maryam to the world around her so quickly, given how judgemental we keep being told it is by the characters. The audience is shown little regarding the fallout of her decision, especially when she is unwittingly filmed scolding a room full of men who have taunted her during her campaign. Combined with a scene late in the film where an elderly male patient finally communicates his respect for Maryam, it can feel at times as though al-Mansour is working too hard to gain approval for her character’s strident feminism.
Ultimately, “The Perfect Candidate” is a likable exploration of female optimism and democratic willpower in a deeply conservative society. It’s also a film that manages to hang onto many traditional family-oriented values and look ahead to a different kind of future. It may be too gentle to leave a deep impression, but its sweetness is also well-earned and nice to savor. [B]