RELEASE DATE: February 9, 2018
DIRECTOR: Brian Crano
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 96 minutes
Starting long after many romantic comedies end, Permission opens on Will (Dan Stevens) and Anna (Rebecca Hall), a Brooklyn-based couple who have been together for over a decade. It’s the first serious relationship for both of them, and with an imminent engagement, a house in construction and lucrative professional possibilities ahead, the future is bright.
But on the evening of Anna’s 30th birthday, an offhand, drunken digression made by Reece (Morgan Spector) – Will’s business partner and the domestic partner of Anna’s brother, Hale (David Joseph Craig) – throws things into flux. If the two have only been with each other, he asks, how do they know they’re not settling?
They’re happy together, or so they think. Their sex life is fine, though they have nothing to compare it to. Reece profusely apologizes for his remarks the following day, but the impact sticks. Writer/director Brian Crano takes this interesting juxtaposition between satisfaction with the known, and curiosity toward the unknown, and makes it Permission’s central conflict.
Will and Anna agree to form a kind of “trial period,” hooking up with other people, on the condition that they remain open about their experiences. However, they quickly revert to singular alternate partners, a model of their history. Anna chooses a passionate musician named Dane (François Arnaud), and Will winds up with Lydia (Gina Gershon), a confident older woman.
While Crano aspires to explore the personal and social notions of their experiment, he doesn’t stray far from decidedly mainstream presumptions. The central pairing is deeply strained by the shift, and both partners struggle with their ability to connect. Permission depicts Dane and Lydia as bland usurpers – delivering important perspectives but relegated to objects of plot progression only.
The film is chock-full of obvious gestures and shallow observations: an anxious character walks past a car fire, and a startling comment made in a restaurant is followed by a waitress in the background dropping a glass. A subplot, depicting Hale and Reece’s arguments over whether to adopt a child, provides more bracing, immediate drama. Yet it’s left to spin its wheels, only there when distraction from the A-plot is deemed necessary.
Permission’s title clues us in on its core theme, but it also becomes an indicator of its tentative nature. The script takes the easy way out every time, ending scenes and arcs in the middle of a reaction, rather than letting the characters play out the rest. The direction is similarly confused. In tandem with its thudding symbolism, it uses bursts of showy lighting and abstract cutting in lieu of allowing moments to naturally evolve.
The movie is filled with with dry humor and awkward encounters, and they prove to be amusing in the abstract, although we can’t help but feel that this levity is used as an excuse to avoid the plot’s more complex implications.
Viable alternatives to strict monogamy are purely discussed as preludes to hypothetical failures, and the only mention of the phrase “open relationship” lands like a verbal atomic bomb. It should be no wonder that Ann and Will immediately run into problems here, as the movie never gives them a chance to have a complete discussion.
Crano may have intended to depict common communication problems, but his characters are too underdeveloped to begin with. There are a few occasions when someone, overwhelmed, twists his or her face up, looks down and makes a loud yelp. For a split second, we can’t tell if they’re laughing or crying. Since we know so little about their personalities, both seem possible.
Yet Stevens and Hall have a great presence together. They probe the difficulties Will and Anna face in their arrangement, and in the film’s emotionally resonant climax, create a nuanced portrait that closes Permission on a thought-provoking note. Its moments of real interest – whether they be dramatic or comedic (a scene where Will demonstrates an unusual desire to Lydia is genuinely hilarious) – that indicate vast potential, largely ignored.
Starting with ambition and ending with resolve, Crano gets stuck in the crucial middle. He struggles to pull everything together and weigh the potential of his script’s tonal and thematic strides.