It isn’t incidental that the new film by Haifaa Al-Mansour opens with doctor Maryam (Mila Alzahrani) driving to work. Al-Mansour’s first film Wadjda was made under illicit, guerrilla conditions in 2012 as women were then still not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Maryam behind the wheel, yet still clad in a niqab, instantly establishes the uneasy tension between the agonising tectonic pace of progress and long-standing Islamic conservatism. This friction is the bedrock of this charming and understated drama.

When Maryam is thwarted from attending a medical conference due to an expired travel permit, and with no male guardian on hand to verify it, she circuitously announces her candidacy for the municipal council. She stands on the platform of paving the road to the hospital, currently a quagmire as a result of a burst pipe. Though she would make the ‘perfect candidate’, she won’t find it easy to win the support of voters.

Despite its political backdrop, The Perfect Candidate is about a family adapting to the gradual change of a country. Maryam is a doctor, yet still distrusted by many due to her sex. Her father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) is an oud player out on tour with his band after the restrictions on live music are lifted, yet each concert carries the shadow of threatened violence from the extreme puritan branch of Saudi Islam. In the absence of their father, Maryam’s sparky, independent sisters step in to help with a campaign institutionally rigged against her from the start. Middle sister Selma (Dae Al Halil) especially proves a natural electioneer with a keen sense of marketing strategy.

The film works best when it’s focussed on Maryam’s election campaign. Thanks to the brilliant, adhesive bond between the three sisters (all non-professional actors), each minor victory and inevitable setback hold a dramatic weight that belies Al-Mansour’s light touch. There’s the same quiet anger that was present in Wadjda, but as in her earlier film, it’s channelled productively and thoughtfully, even finding exasperated comedy at each hurdle. When sparks do fly, such as when Maryam breaks protocol to address a crowd of men face-to-face, the sense of triumph is palpable.

When Al-Mansour shifts her attention to the band on the road, the film loses some momentum. Narratively, the tour makes sense as it provides a reason for Abdulaziz’s absence, and it certainly ties in with the central theme of societal progress vs. stasis, but it’s a far less interesting plot thread than the campaign. Abdulaziz is also something of a cypher as a character next to the wonderful sisters. The concert footage does, however, capture the sheer joy of a crowd hungry for live performance, and it evokes a sense of shared spirituality that no call to prayer ever could.

The Perfect Candidate is an ideal thematic follow-up to Wadjda. In fact, Maryam could be the title character grown up and flourished. Both films are suffused in conviction and passion. Al-Mansour has a direct, unfussy style that foregrounds character while making the metaphors and symbolism she employs direct, even blunt. The soupy mud leading to Maryam’s place of work stands in as the struggle for progress in general. Al-Mansour’s film accepts that this change may be infinitesimal, but for a film charged with the crackle of righteousness, its overall tone is one of hope and optimism.

As part of Glasgow Film Festival 2020