Review: A Saudi woman seeks to drive change in charming ‘The Perfect Candidate’

Two actors in a hospital scene from the movie "The Perfect Candidate."
Mila Alzahrani and Hamad Almuzainy in the movie “The Perfect Candidate.”
(Music Box Films)

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When Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour broke gender and culture barriers with her 2012 debut “Wadjda,” its 10-year-old girl protagonist’s bike-owning dream was a simple yet powerful metaphor for what females were denied in the kingdom.

Now al-Mansour can open her new film, “The Perfect Candidate,” showing the legal reality (as of 2018) of a Saudi woman driving — young, niqab-wearing doctor Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), on her way to work — even as the rest of the film depicts just how much more there is to be done before women can fully steer their destinies in Saudi Arabia.

Maryam is conservative culturally (her niqab is frequently on) but openly ambitious about her career. Yet when patriarchal rules prevent her from fixing a travel snafu in time to make a flight for a key Dubai conference that could land her a big job, she redirects her energies into a city council run with the help of her media- and image-savvy sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Noura Al Awad). Her single issue: a long-unpaved road hampering access to the rural hospital where she works. The larger issue: being accepted as a serious mainstream candidate when such campaigns are viewed primarily as a gender stunt rather than a sincere bid for leadership.

What rounds out this classically assembled, charm-zested yarn about finding one’s voice in a changing world is al-Mansour’s and co-screenwriter Brad Niemann’s caring portrait of Maryam’s family. This includes the sassy interplay between the well-cast sisters, some unresolved grief surrounding the loss of their mother and the not-always-compelling but still sweetly handled subplot that sees their widower dad (Khalid Abdulrhim), a skilled musician, on the road chasing his own unfulfilled dreams just when Maryam needs his support the most.


Less a hand-wringing dispatch from a repressive land than a judiciously glossy nudge toward a better world, “The Perfect Candidate” isn’t complicated, yet earns its mixed/hopeful conclusion. Especially al-Mansour’s wonderful final shot, which recalls her first, but with one crucial, powerfully added visual detail about what it means to be behind the wheel of one’s life.

'The Perfect Candidate'

In Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Starts May 14, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; and Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; starts May 21, Laemmle Claremont and Laemmle Newhall