Film Review: The Perfect Candidate

Director and co-writer Haifaa al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate is a socially relevant and quietly engaging drama. The film’s optimism gives it a winning edge.

After her frustration with the flooded road that leads to her clinic, young doctor Maryam decides to run in her city’s local election. The first female candidate to do so, Sara’s family get caught up in her campaign…

Focusing on a young female doctor and her family, The Perfect Candidate offers a picture of contemporary Saudi Arabia. Like al-Mansour’s debut effort Wadjda, her latest film gives an insight into life as a young woman under a socially repressive regime. 

The narrative unfolds slowly, with the central strand not emerging initially. Once this gets underway, most of the action concerns Maryam and her campaign. A secondary strand focuses on her father and his band’s tour. At first glance, al-Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann appear to put a bit too much emphasis on this rather repetitive strand. Nevertheless, its importance emergences in the final third of the film. 

Protagonist Maryam is developed well. She seems multifaceted; Maryam is someone facing discrimination, yet she is not free from prejudice herself. Her father and sister Selma are sufficiently fleshed out. The antagonists in The Perfect Candidate are not given much screen time; with al-Mansour opting to focus on the family at the heart of the film. 

The Perfect Candidate feels very contemporary. Maryam drives herself in her brand new car, and is able to run for council. Nevertheless, al-Mansour makes very clear that the regressive attitudes and rules remain. She highlights that these exist among women as well as men. The film ends on a small positive, with al-Mansour giving a hopeful indication that attitudes are slowly changing. 

Mila Al Zahrani delivers a solid performance in the central role. She receives good support from Dae Al Hilali as sister Selma. Khaled Abdulraheem is also decent as their father. The film is stronger for not taking a potential romantic route. Instead, al-Mansour focuses on protagonist’s ambition and growing confidence in her ability to make a change. 

The Perfect Candidate is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.