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Permission

Theatrical Review


Good Deed Entertainment; 96 minutes

Director: Brian Crano


Written by Jonah Jeng on February 8, 2018 




Is this person “the one”?

Until relatively recently, this wasn’t a question that was often asked in Western society, at least not aloud. For centuries, marriages took place for a host of reasons unrelated to mutual affection. Financial security, political power, the approval of parents or adherence to a culture wedded to a Rockwellian vision of the nuclear family—the list of motivating factors runs long. However, once modernity undid traditional marital and familial structures to emphasize individual agency and sexual freedom, the new social landscape became—or at least gave the impression of having become—one of liberating possibility. Today, one could theoretically date anyone one wanted and pursue any form of “relationship” on the spectrum between “single” and “together.” The issue that arises from this state of affairs is an existential one, since with endless possibility comes an endless number of choices. If self-determination is the buzzword and I am the key to my own happiness, I should be able to choose the person that will make me happy. But since there are so many possible candidates, how will I know which is the right one?

This is the question that drops like a bomb into the middle of Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will’s (Dan Stevens) relationship—courtesy of a drunk friend’s blabbering—and sours the very evening during which Will was going to pop the other question (unsurprisingly, he leaves the latter unposed). Bad timing doesn’t get worse than this, but the incident does prompt a degree of honest self-reflection for the couple. The two of them, childhood sweethearts who are now in their late-twenties/early-thirties, have never been with anyone else but each other. To them, their relationship is going great, but as their friend says, “compared to what?” It’s the kind of soul-shaking question that many a soon-to-be-married person probably asks the night before their wedding, but Anna and Will’s proposed solution is, to say the least, unorthodox. They will remain fully committed to each other as romantic partners but, at the same time, date and sleep with other people in order to confirm that the two of them are truly the best for each other.

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This arrangement sounds at first like what might be called an “open relationship,” except Anna explicitly vetoes that term when Will brings it up. Sleeping around is permitted in a way that does sound rather “open,” except this promiscuity is viewed as being provisional, a means of eventually solidifying a “closed” relationship for the two of them, who, throughout the whole process, are supposedly still exclusively each other’s boyfriend/girlfriend. In other words, Will and Anna are trying to forcibly reconcile two relationship models—the monogamous one of having only one sexual partner at a time and the contemporary paradigm that deemphasizes commitment—and Permission depicts the emotional fallout that such manipulations inevitably bring. The film is being marketed as a rom-com of sorts, and while the clever absurdity of the premise and abundance of awkward situations reinforce this genre designation, the sting of seeing Will and Anna fall victim to the intimacy that develops from sex edges the film more in the direction of tragedy.

Hall and Stevens, playing Will and Anna, respectively, do a commendable job at conveying the rapid emotional flux that unsurprisingly accompanies the characters’ halfway reentry into the dating pool; they never over-act and seldom strike a false note. The supporting players are solid as well. David Joseph Craig and Morgan Spector play a couple who disagree on whether or not to adopt a child, and Jason Sudeikis has a minor role as the affable stranger who encourages Craig’s Hale in his ambitions of being a father (incidentally, two actors from last year’s Colossal, Stevens and Sudeikis, appear in Permission, but they’ve replaced their prior toxic masculinity with pleasant ordinariness). The adoption subplot is less interesting than Will and Anna’s predicament, but viewed together, the two dramas provide a rough but resonant sketch of modern love as being suspended between ostensibly contradictory values, some relatively “traditional,” others more “progressive.” Will and Anna’s willingness to “open” their relationship feels like a product of the contemporary Western world’s post-monogamy zeitgeist, except this opening up is motivated by a quest for “the one” that runs counter to the more casual, modern-day view of sex as being primarily about pleasure rather than the consummation of true love. In the other couple’s scenario, we see played out the antinomy between the more age-old joys of having a family and the current valorization of individual freedom and independence, both of which are significantly curtailed when one has children to take care of.

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It’s fitting that a film about socio-cultural modernity is set in NYC, which has been one of the pinnacles of modernization and iconoclasm since the early twentieth century. Hopping from hipster dives and neon-drenched flats to artisanal woodwork shops and public parks, Permission is a New York movie in the sense that it doesn’t merely take place in the city but treats it as a character—in this case, an embodiment of the at once vital and superficial, empowering and limiting, seductive and alienating nature of modern life. The seductiveness works on the viewer as well, especially since DP Adam Bricker (who lensed episodes of American Vandal and Chef’s Table) captures these New York spaces with a strong sense of visual composition. Two of my favorite shots in the film parallel each other by showing mutually smitten strangers facing each other while standing on opposite sides of the frame. The seemingly massive gap between them begs to be bridged, and the camera’s stillness feels perfect—the scene isn’t about the kinetic energy of carnality but the potential energy of reckless desire, which charges the air like a dangerous electricity.

Permission itself doesn’t fully remain in such a state of limbo. It arrives as many Hollywood narratives do at a resolution, but the film smartly doesn’t frame this ending as supporting any particular schema of what relationships should be. Such proselytizing would likely have been a fool’s errand, glossing over the ungeneralizable particulars of what any specific romance is like in favor of a broad, simplistic formula for love. Rather, the film stays at the level of specifics, observing the characters’ movement toward a point that feels right for them but might not apply to every couple. This ending works because it attempts to answer only what it can. The rest of us will have to do our own searching to figure out what love is and looks like in the modern world, but hey, at least we know we won’t be fumbling in the dark alone.

Permission opens on Friday, February 9.


B







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