TIFF ’19 Review: Haifaa al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate” is a Major Winner

“Think of my blood pressure,” Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) tells his daughter Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) while on the road with his band in “The Perfect Candidate,” before she reminds him as a doctor she’s checked it thousands of times and he’s fine. However, it’s understandable why he thinks it spiked in recent days, realizing that he picked an inopportune time to go touring, an opportunity he’s waited a lifetime for after primarily playing weddings and using his musical skills to teach the oud to others in rural Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, it is well after Maryam knew this, having still needed his signature on her travel documents that he forgot to sign before leaving, and in her attempts to make a medical conference in Dubai, she is inadvertently signed up to run in an election for municipal council, needing a timely reason to even get past the door of the local bureaucrat to talk about her passport issues, and deciding that she actually has an issue to run on – the unpaved road in front of her hospital that makes access all but impossible, she launches a full-blown campaign.

The separation of Abdualaziz and Maryam causes its share of problems for the two onscreen, but director Haifaa al-Mansour makes brilliant use of the situation to give a panoramic view of contemporary Saudi Arabia where Abdulaziz’s tour, playing live music still in a tradition-bound patriarchy, shows the constraints of a world where only half the population has been tapped for their potential, while Maryam’s run for office, with campaign events built around fashion shows with DJs spinning, shows the promise of modern trends that will inevitably break through. With co-writer Brad Niemann, the director of “Wadjda” and “Mary Shelley” once again makes telling an incredibly complex story look effortless, cannily never introducing the incumbent candidate Maryam is taking on since he isn’t who, or more accurately what, she’s running against. And as she prints out a checklist she found online of 10 things you need to do to run for office and watches low-rent American political ads for inspiration, “The Perfect Candidate” applies a wonderfully light touch to the brutal campaign.

Al Bahraini is magnetic and although Maryam struggles to win supporters on the trail, the actress’s confidence and charisma contributes to raising the stakes as you wonder what it would take not to cast a vote for her. Al Mansour also does well to create a strong family around Maryam, still reeling slightly from the death of their matriarch with strong performances from Nora Al Awadh and Dae Al Hilali as her siblings Sara and Selma, respectively, who are conflicted about the more public presence they’ll have after their sister runs. However, “The Perfect Candidate” is careful to show as many unexpectedly positive ramifications that come with Maryam’s run (if not more) than cons and how progress is not only possible, but happening in small increments daily throughout the society – in fact, one only needs to consider the wider canvas al Mansour is able to work on within the country in her latest film after having filmed “Wadjda” largely from the remove of a van to know see the signs, and the feeling throughout is galvanizing.

“The Perfect Candidate” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 8th at 12:15 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, September 10th at the Scotiabank Theatre at 2:30 pm and September 14th at 12:45 pm.