It’s hard to know who’s the perfect audience for “The Perfect Candidate,” Haifaa Al Mansour’s first Saudi film since “Wadjda.” Even more than in that debut hit, her latest is clearly designed to demythologize the Kingdom, taking a host of cultural signifiers and parading them out in the cinematic equivalent of billboard-sized letters to show that Saudi society is heterogeneous and mutable. The script is so simplistic in how it runs through a checklist of cultural practices — women’s dress, gendered spaces, the role of music — that it reduces the people themselves to unsophisticated representatives of change, and yet its welcome message of female empowerment will be embraced by Western audiences pleased to see women removing their niqabs. How it will play regionally is difficult to guess, though it’s encouraging that cinemas now exist in Saudi Arabia for locals to see it, too.
While “Wadjda,” with its scrappy protagonist, was similarly calculated to show how a headstrong girl with a dream can instigate positive change, “The Perfect Candidate” feels even more by-the-book, carefully ensuring its main character, a woman doctor who runs for municipal council, experiences the trajectory deemed necessary to show the Kingdom as a place where female solidarity and a gradual easing of restrictive rules are leading to more fulfilling lives. Activists will argue the pace of transformation is too slow, government defenders will counter that real parity is a pipe dream and cultural practices take time to change. Al Mansour leans toward the latter, presenting a challenging but sunny road ahead; it’s a pity her methods are so blatantly premeditated that you can practically see the most basic of script development notes in every scene.
Dr. Maryam (Mila Alzahrani) is first seen driving her car alone — something women were only able to do as of 2018 — to the hospital where she works in a small town in Riyadh province, negotiating thick mud from the unpaved access road as she enters the doors. In the corridor, she tries to initiate treatment for Abu Musa (Hamad Almuzainy), an elderly man injured in a car accident, but he refuses to look at a woman let alone be touched by her, even a woman wearing a niqab that covers all but her eyes. When she persists, the hospital administrator Dr. Ghazi (Bandar Hadadi) tells her to leave him alone, as male nurses will take care of the patient.
Back home, she and her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Noura Al Awad) prepare an elaborate Ramadan evening meal, shared with their father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), an oud player whose grief at his wife’s recent death has made him more hands-off than usual in looking after his daughters. That becomes a problem when Maryam wants to attend a medical conference in Dubai but discovers at the airport that her permission to travel is no longer valid. Since her father is on the road with his group of musicians, Maryam goes to her mother’s cousin Rashid (Ahmad Alsulaimy), hoping he’ll act as her temporary male guardian, but to see him, she has to get past his secretary, who tells her Rashid is only meeting with people applying to join the electoral rolls for municipal council. Desperate, she says that’s why she’s come; Rashid is encouraging regarding her application but can’t break the law to get her the travel permit she needs. Defeated in her purpose but now an official candidate, Maryam returns home deciding to go through with the electioneering in order to get the hospital access road paved.
Her younger sister Sara is furious, convinced the exposure she’ll receive as a woman attempting to enter politics — even a woman with a niqab — will draw shame on the family. It brings back memories of their mother, a wedding singer whose public visibility created tense situations for her daughters. Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, is more supportive and organizes a hen party, complete with an abaya fashion show, to raise awareness of Maryam’s campaign. The response is less enthusiastic than hoped for, largely because many of the women are not voting, or else their fathers/husbands won’t allow them to vote for a woman, but when Selma tells her sister, “I believe in you,” Maryam finds the confidence to remove her niqab and go on television without a veil over her face.
Unsurprisingly, Maryam’s self-assurance keeps growing as she embraces her newfound role as champion not just of women, but the whole community. Equally predictable, Abdulaziz’s band of musicians start their national tour as barely appreciated background players and wind up fighting fundamentalist criticism to become wildly popular performers of the kind of traditional music commonly heard in public before the mid-20th-century ultra-Wahabi crackdown. At every step, Al Mansour feeds the audience exactly what she thinks will make them feel good about positive change in Saudi Arabia, setting up conflict and resolution with all the nuance of a by-the-numbers construction kit. Emotions will be milked by frequent reference to the sisters’ deceased mother, a sense of female solidarity will develop thanks to seeing roomfuls of Saudi women partying together without hijabs, and a romance of sorts will potentially blossom between Maryam and Abu Musa’s grandson Omar (Tarek Ahmed Al Khaldi).
Al Mansour certainly appears more committed to this project than she did her more Western-centric projects “Mary Shelley” and “Nappily Ever After,” yet its personality lies entirely in the characters rather than the story or any filmmaking style. Visuals by DP Patrick Orth (“Toni Erdman”) are blandly undistinguished, but vibrant social media star Dhay is an especially welcome presence, and Alzahrani grows into her role once the character herself develops some gumption. Singing star Khadeeja Mua’th (on YouTube she’s spelled Khadija Moaz) also makes a real impact, playing a variation of herself and generating sparks of joyful warmth whenever on screen.