Sundance 2020: The Perfect Candidate, by David Bax
The Perfect Candidate, the new film from Wadjda director Haifa Al-Mansour, is likely to be impactful among the bourgeois, Western audiences like the one I saw it with in Park City’s Egyptian Theatre. The thing it does best is embedding itself in Saudi society, observing Ramadan, celebrating Eid and making day to day life in a culture that so severely restricts women understandable. It doesn’t forgive that way of life–quite the opposite–but it makes it clear how an intelligent and capable woman continues to put one foot in front of the other. Unfortunately, the adherence to these thematic concerns puts the movie on a narrow course that’s not made any smoother by Al-Mansour’s uninspired aesthetics.
Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) is a doctor in a small town clinic who, in an effort to relocate to a better job in a big city, more or less accidentally finds herself running for a position on the municipal council. As a natural problem solver (fixing audio problems at a wedding planned by her sister), she’d be a great fit for the position. But as someone who gets little respect (an elderly clinic patient would rather suffer than be treated by a woman), her campaign will be an excruciating uphill climb.
Maryam has her sisters (Nora Al Awadh and Dae Al Hilali) to help her but their mother has passed away and their father (Khalid Abdulraheem) is on tour with a band playing traditional Saudi folk music. The tour forms a sort of B-plot, where the threats received by the band from extremists who don’t believe in music mirror the threats Maryam faces as a woman speaking out publicly. There’s more than one dangerous form of self-expression in Saudi Arabia, it seems.
Maryam’s travails are clearly the harder ones, though, and The Perfect Candidate reflects that. She faces the threat of violence, of course, but there’s also the condescension and the feeling of being ushered into a box by her gender. Maryam’s initial platform consists solely of paving the road to the clinic so people who need treatment can get it faster and easier (the mud splashes that constantly adore the sides of her car are emblems of what she has to go through just to get to her job every day). But soon it becomes clear that she will have to be a women’s rights candidate simply because her candidacy is, in itself, a women’s rights issue.
Maryam’s campaign is a slapdash, ad hoc affair but that doesn’t mean The Perfect Candidate had to look as if it were as well. The languid pacing robs the narrative of urgency and the flat, soft lighting and floating camera recall a third generation copy of a prestige television drama. Setpieces seem as false and manufactured as Maryam’s fundraiser that seems to come together all on its own. The Perfect Candidate has the smarts to work on the head but not the grace or vision to work on the heart.