A telling take on modern romance.
Watching the new indie drama Permission starring Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens, I was reminded of the now-classic Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. That 1969 film was a real watershed moment in terms of the kind of risque content that could find its way onto the screen and what it managed to say about the state of modern-day relationships. It’s funny how Permission’s general premise feels just as daring in 2018 as it no doubt would have been back in the late 60s. Yet the film manages to eloquently show that even in today’s society, notions of finding “the one,” and staying true and loyal to that person (in every sense of the word) remains as grey now as it did then.
In Permission, Hall and Stevens star as Anna and Will, a devoted couple together since their school days who now live an existence in New York full of love and contentment. Yet after Will suddenly hesitates to go through with his plan of proposing to Anna on her birthday, the two surprise each other by bringing up the idea of giving themselves permission to sleep with other people in effort to understand their unknown sexuality.
One of the film’s elements which cannot help but stand out is its rich New York setting. Writer/director Brian Crano’s love of the big apple is evident in the many lofts, galleries, cafes, parks and city sidewalks he chooses to place his characters in. So much of the film features Hall and Stevens literally just walking around the city in sharp coats and slightly bohemian scarves looking pensive while appropriate soft indie rock plays in the background. Crano never lets this aspect of Permission wear thin however as he wisely uses it to help showcase the plights both characters find themselves in. There’s a such a strong sense of the kinds of questions Will and Anna are trying desperately to answer through each walking montage. “If I enjoy this, does this mean that I don’t love him? If I don’t do this, will she feel guilty?” It’s these questions that spawn from such moments and feature Permission at its best; allowing the heart of the screenplay to infuse itself into the audience through the captivating expressions on the actors’ faces.
Unsurprisingly, the revelations that come about from the quest Anna and Will embark on are plenty. While one character doesn’t like what they find, another allows a sudden personal change to take over. The ultimate discovery Will and Anna make is themselves as individuals apart from each other; a luxury never afforded to them due to their longtime relationship from an early age. Anna’s time with a musician (Francois Arnaud) and Will’s with a rich divorcee (Gina Gershon) open the couple’s eyes to who they might have been afraid to be with each other and on a deeper level, who they never knew they were. So many couples can claim to be childhood sweethearts who knew they were always meant to be together. Permission offers up a sensitive counter-argument by asking: How do two people know that to be so if they’ve never explored life, let alone their own selves, without one another? Eventually Will and Anna’s actions become far more meaningful than they ever intended, particularly in the latter’s case; leading to an outcome that may not be altogether happy, but feels entirely true and real.
Hall and Stevens have such a good rapport together on the screen, reading each other’s cues and believing in the characters they’re playing that it becomes incredibly easy to picture them as a real couple. The pair are well-supported by Gershon and Arnaud, as well as by Morgan Spector and David Joseph Craig as the couple’s best friend and brother, respectively.
Spector and Craig may likewise have a unique relatability as romantic partners, but Permission fails to make their sub-plot, that of a gay couple struggling with the decision to start a family, relevant to the rest of the film. This is especially sad since the storyline also wastes the talents of Jason Sudeikis in a wholly throwaway supporting role. Meanwhile, the ending of Permission certainly cannot be called crowd-pleasing, and will surely have certain audience members hoping they could rewrite it themselves. Yet in many ways, the journey Will and Anna take is a necessary one which brings forth the kind of results and epiphanies both characters needed to experience in order to fully embrace and do right by their own true selves as well as each other.