CineWomen: ‘Wadjda’ director Haifaa al-Mansour returns to Saudi Arabia with ‘The Perfect Candidate’

Plus Natalie Morales’s ‘Plan B’ and Eliza Hittman’s ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Photo credit: Annlee Ellingson

443 days.

That’s how long it had been since I’d seen a movie in a theater during the pandemic.

The last film I saw was Emma. on March 11, 2020, at the Regal Edwards Santa Maria.

The first one I saw was Cruella — starring a couple of Emmas — on Friday at the AMC Century City.

I didn’t actively choose Emma. as the last movie I’d see before movie theaters shut down for more than a year. It was apropos, though, given I was already noodling ideas then for a column dedicated to films directed by women.

I did debate, however, what my first film back should be, at one point thinking it might be Black Widow — the first big blockbuster directed by a woman to play in theaters (at least in my area).

Once I got my second jab, however, and with the arrival of one of the biggest moviegoing weekends of the year, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, and also to not be so precious about it. I wanted to have fun, and revel in the big-screen experience, and Cruella fit the bill, with its 1970s British punk soundtrack and fashion, and a couple of devilish performances by Emmas Stone and Thompson — whose shared first name offered a satisfying thread to the last movie I’d seen in theaters.

Reader, I cried.

I’d settled into my recliner in the front section of the theater with my giant popcorn and soda — leftover birthday rewards from my paused AMC Stubs A-List subscription — and snapped an acceptable photo to record the moment on Instagram. I was fine.

Then the trailers started, including one for In the Heights that’s basically one big musical number around the tune “96,000,” and I lost it.

Now, I don’t have a particular affinity for In the Heights — haven’t seen the play or even heard the music. I don’t even really like musicals that much as a rule. But there was something about the impact of the classic Hollywood form retuned with a Latinx beat on a giant screen — punctuated by a quick tease for F9 — that I couldn’t handle.

My mask got wet, my glasses fogged up — it was a shitshow.

Short-lived, because I got distracted by how I was going to watch the movie without being able to see, but an emotional moment nonetheless.

I can’t wait to go back.

Mila Alzahrani is “The Perfect Candidate,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour. Courtesy of Music Box Films

‘The Perfect Candidate’ and ‘Wadjda’

Seven years after Haifaa al-Mansour filmed Wadjda, the first feature shot entirely in the country of Saudi Arabia, she returns with The Perfect Candidate, a movie that demonstrates how much has changed in the Arab country — and how much has stayed the same.

For one thing, the film opens with a woman behind the wheel, driving herself to work — as a doctor, no less — in contrast to the mother in the earlier film who is beholden to a surly male driver to transport her to her teaching job.

For another, the doctor is covered head to toe in a traditional black abaya (robe) and niqab (veil) with only a slit for her eyes — focusing much of the actress’s performance on her most expressive of features.

It’s tempting to view the woman at the center of The Perfect Candidate as the grown version of the girl at the heart of Wadjda, but the truth is the characters are quite different, even if the societal forces they’re pushing against are the same.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is naturally rebellious, with purple laces in her sneakers and her eye on a green bicycle in a culture in which only boys ride bikes. Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) adheres to tradition even when it chafes — male patients who refuse her treatment and business travel that requires her father’s permission.

Their family dynamics (and thus thematic subplots) differ too, with Wadjda’s mother navigating the abandonment of a husband seeking a second wife who might bear him a son, and Maryam’s widowed father hitting the road with his band as the country starts opening to art again.

Both share, however, the rich, warm private world of Saudi women who behind closed doors shed their shapeless, monochromatic garments and are revealed to be colorful and opinionated and enterprising.

Al-Mansour doesn’t explain the particulars of Saudi culture for Western viewers. Rather, she drops us in, sans exposition, to experience and piece it together ourselves.

Haifaa al-Mansour’s ”Wadjda“ was the first feature shot entirely in the country of Saudi Arabia. Photo credit: Tobias Kownatzki/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Wadjda sets out to raise the 800 riyal she needs to buy her green bicycle by braiding friendship bracelets for classmates, delivering messages between illicit lovebirds, and eventually memorizing the Quran to win a recitation competition — a ruse that fools her headmistress into believing she’d mended her insubordinate ways.

Maryam, on the other hand, signs up to run for municipal council just as a shortcut around one of her gender-related obstacles — a shortcut that doesn’t work, by the way — but decides to follow through to address what she really cares about: fixing the muddy road that leads to her clinic.

In the end, their simple desires — Wadjda for the green bicycle, Maryam for road repairs — represent their fundamental rights to be free and to be heard.

The Perfect Candidate (2019), directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (theaters)

Wadjda (2012), directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (Netflix)

Victoria Moroles and Kuhoo Verma make a “Plan B,” directed by Natalie Morales. Photo credit: Brett Roedel/Hulu

‘Plan B’ and ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

It’s a shame — nay, a tragedy — that there’s a subgenre of buddy road trip movies now in which teenage girls embark on a dangerous overnight quest across the state or state lines to end an unwanted pregnancy. If the seventeen-year-olds at the center of Natalie Morales’s Plan B and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always — or Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant, for that matter — were able to acquire the moring-after pill or an abortion without their parents’ permission, their stories wouldn’t warrant an entire category of coming-of-age cinema.

The earliest of these mentioned here, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, got tangled up in the early part of the pandemic with a theatrical release just as cinemas closed in March 2020 and a digital debut shortly after, mangling a rollout that should have seen the film treated better during awards season. (Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow was also a victim of such unfortunate timing.)

Writer-director Hittman (Beach Rats) crafts a painfully intimate portrait of Autumn (singer-songwriter Sidney Flanigan), an isolated Pennsylvania teen whose perpetually foul mood belies a private burden: she’s pregnant, her boyfriend’s a jerk, and her home life is held hostage by her volatile stepfather.

Unable to get an abortion without involving her parents, Autumn boards a bus to New York City, but she’s not alone — her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) joins her with some crumpled bills pocketed at their grocery store job and a suitcase far too cumbersome for what they expect will be a quick trip. At once experienced and naive, they are accosted at every turn — by the creepy customer who turns friendly chitchat into a proposition, by their boss who sleazily kisses their hands when they hand in their register cash for the night, by the kid on the bus who insists on getting Skylar’s number. Mostly they tolerate this behavior through pained smiles that tragically speak to how accustomed they are to it.

Sidney Flanigan answers “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” directed by Eliza Hittman. Courtesy of Focus Features

The girls make it to New York, only to discover that Autumn is further along than she was told by her hometown clinic, necessitating a two-day procedure. With little money and no place to stay, they wander the city with that ridiculous bag in tow — less an adventure than survival that frays their nerves, but forgiveness comes easy.

Inside the intimidatingly secure Planned Parenthood, though, the tough, taciturn Autumn finds warmth and understanding she’s probably never experienced before, which Hittman films with unblinking, sympathetic closeups that expose the girl’s desperation and grit.

Morales takes another tack with Plan B — a bawdy comedy new on Hulu in which good girl Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) throws a party and loses her virginity in one mild night, with neither living up to her imagination. When she discovers the next morning that the condom didn’t, uh, perform, Sunny and her bestie Lupe (Victoria Moroles) head to the pharmacy for Plan B, only to be turned away — they’re in my home state of South Dakota, which is one of few states with a conscience clause that allows pharmacists to refuse to provide contraception if it conflicts with their beliefs.

Sunny’s mom is conveniently out of town (thus the party), so they hit the road in her minivan with the Rapid City Planned Parenthood in their GPS. What should take three hours takes much, much longer thanks to closed roads and lost signals, launching hijinks including, in reverse order, a drug-fueled party at a remote farmhouse, meeting Lupe’s mysterious new love interest for the first time and a bedazzled penis.

Anchored by bright, bubbly performances from Verma and Moroles, Plan B has lower stakes than Never Rarely Sometimes Always — Sunny doesn’t know that she’s pregnant, and has a loving, if demanding, home life — and so can afford to turn the girls’ ordeal into a fun romp.

The question is, why are we putting them through this in the first place?

Plan B (2021), directed by Natalie Morales (Hulu)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), directed by Eliza Hittman (HBO Max)

Writer. Reader. Film critic. Moviegoer. Traveler. Hiker. Cook. Besotted aunt to Logan, Titus, and Bodhi. Based in Los Angeles. Social: @annleee (she/her/hers)