May 21st, 2021
MOVIE: THE PERFECT CANDIDATE
STARRING: MILA AL ZAHRANI, DAE AL HILALI, NORA AL AWAD, KHALID ABDULRAHEEM
DIRECTED BY: HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The films of Haifaa Al-Mansour will forever have a special place in my heart. Her debut film Wadjda made a great impact on me, being one of the first films I saw at EbertFest, the yearly film festival that celebrates the life of film critic Roger Ebert. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour was even kind enough to let me say hello to her that weekend, but what was even more impressive was to learn that it was the first film directed by a woman in Saudi Arabia. It immediately set her as a pioneer for women in cinema. Wadjda was a story of a 10-year old girl with hopes to have her own green bicycle, a charming coming-of-age film, and a story that shined a light on women’s rights everywhere. It’s now nine years later and it feels like The Perfect Candidate could be the second installment to what Wadjda started. It might not be as great as the latter, but it’s close, as The Perfect Candidate becomes an engaging expression of a woman standing up for herself in the face of old fashioned living. The Perfect Candidate certainly has my vote.
There are multiple moments in The Perfect Candidate that infuriated me as it did our main character. Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) is working at a local clinic in her small Saudi Arabian town, where she’s easily the most qualified, and yet still has patients that refuse to see her strictly because she’s a woman. Sadly, she can’t just wish that they would die from their stubborness, but instead shows her incredible commitment to be great at what she does no matter what. The other problem is that the road leading to their clinic is unpaved, which leads to people unable to get in the door of the ER, ambulances getting stuck, and an awful experience for everyone in the community. When Maryam attempts to leave for a conference in Dubai, it’s revealed that her passport is not in order, and like much of anything in her country it’s not an easy fix. This sends her down a path to make a change on her own, and she registers herself to run for town council, which she initially sees as just a spark, and eventually becomes passionate about.
The major subplot of The Perfect Candidate is the relationship between Maryam and her father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), a traveling musician, who after the loss of his wife has loosened his grip of traditional living for his three daughters, but still won’t support them in the way a father should. The screenplay, co-written by Al-Mansour and Brad Niemann, draws a juxtaposition between father and daughter, with how both are regulated, pushed aside in different ways. Musicians are often seen as a lesser profession, something delegated to those who serve others, especially in a wealthier status. While Abdulaziz is engaging in his own road trip of rejection and minimal joy, Maryam, along with her older sister Selma (Dae Al Hilali), and younger teenage sister Sara (Nora Al Awad) begins her steps in campaigning. It’s never easy.
It’s when the campaigning part begins where The Perfect Candidate blossoms into a beautiful story of someone pushing back against the wrong, antiquated traditions, and also mending the generational gaps between her and her two sisters. This is how Haifaa Al-Mansour shines, taking the story into parts of Saudi Arabia that bounce between progressive and conservative, a world that only recently allows women to drive, and a place where Maryam must promote her candidacy at fashion shows with rooms full of women, rarely allowed to be herself in a room full of men. It’s because of this messaging, never spoken with a blow horn, but an honest approach, making The Perfect Candidate an excellent following to Wadjda.
As Maryam embarks on the journey of trying to make an impact for her community, it forces others to take notice of the things that are needed, and she speaks for herself for once, which is when the joy in The Perfect Candidate grows. The absolute star of it all is Mila Al Zahrani, a brilliant and impactful new actor that deserves more praise long after it ends. Her portrayal of Maryam is layered, creating someone that has moments of complete courage, self doubt, and incredible fear. That just seems to be the kind of work that Haifa Al-Monsour will get from her lead actors. Just as Wadjda was, The Perfect Candidate is a towering success for the director from Saudi Arabia. She’s a director that will always have a spot on my directors ballot.
THE PERFECT CANDIDATE IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS THIS WEEKEND, AT THE MUSIC BOX THEATER, AND AVAILABLE ON DEMAND.
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady