Permission plays like the overly convoluted demise of a relationship spawned by the fear of simply being honest about what you want, all couched in unconvincing comedy.
It can be difficult for audiences to drum up sympathy for characters that cause their own turmoil. Brian Crano hopes to skirt this issue by focusing Permission on a question that many people have had: how do you know you’ve found the right person if you’ve never been with anyone else? The difference is that his characters follow through with a doomed relationship test. Self-sabotage in relationships is real and prevalent, but Crano’s script sometimes struggles to balance its messages. Tied into its question of sexual experiences are the requisite pre-engagement cold feet. A subplot involving a couple driven apart by the desire to have kids solidifies themes of fear before making a lifetime commitment (marital or parental) but muddles those emotions with self-conscious worries and differing goals for the future. Instead of coming across as a story of two people discovering their true desires, then, Permission plays like the overly convoluted demise of a relationship spawned by the fear of simply being honest about what you want, all couched in unconvincing comedy.
Crano opens with a seemingly typical night of unsatisfactory sex between Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens), a long-term couple on the brink of their thirties and an engagement. Not that Anna says anything to Will about being unsatisfied. She’s in the process of completing her Master’s in music composition. Will is a carpenter who, when not building “honest” rustic tables, is nearing completion on the custom row house where he and Anna will start a family. Their future seems both inevitable and assured. So much so that Will’s best friend and business partner, Reece (Morgan Spector), somewhat drunkenly complains that the two shouldn’t be so confident in their relationship when they’ve never had any other sexual partners. This nugget of a doubt balloons into a romantic existential crisis.
Unsurprisingly, Crano matches his uneven opening scene with an uneven dynamic in this open relationship experiment. Anna immediately meets Dane (François Arnaud), a musician with whom she has shared interests and incredible chemistry. The goal was for each of them to experience other sexual partners, not find a steady boyfriend, but Anna continues to see Dane. Will sees Lydia’s (Gina Gershon) flirtations as a convenient opportunity to uphold his end of the bargain but doesn’t get attached. The same goes for a random bartender. The action therefore is solidly driven by Anna’s emotions and desires, much like in the subplot involving Reece and Anna’s brother, Hale (David Joseph Craig). Hale realizes that he wants to start a family, but Reece’s impulse is to aggressively ask why he isn’t enough. This subplot is much more straightforward because Hale and Reece’s feelings are so clear-cut. The ambiguity and increasing self-dishonesty in Anna and Will’s story simply delays the inevitable, albeit not the inevitable that prompted their experiment.
And just as there is an imbalance in Anna and Will’s experiment, Crano’s script keeps them feeling out of sync. Anna’s scenes, and therefore a large chunk of the movie, are broodier, carrying the more somber, dramatic aspect of the story. Will, on the other hand, provides the bulk of the comedy. Stevens does his best with the awkwardness of his character’s situation and the goofiness of scenes like the one where he takes acid with Lydia, but this humor lends itself to a reading where Will takes this all a little less seriously.
Whereas Crano’s debut feature A Bag of Hammers was an affecting blend of comedy and drama, as a messy rom-com Permission achieves the former while fudging the latter. Worst of all, though, is the predictable story, compounded by Anna’s glaring lack of enthusiasm about marrying Will from the get-go. Crano’s script may honestly reflect how some relationships meet their sticky ends, but it doesn’t make for the most engaging movie when the focus is on partners who were complacent enough to be dishonest with each other and themselves. Unfortunately for Crano, the pseudo-feminist message behind Anna’s story—and the irony that she makes the same mistake of finding someone and instantly envisioning a forever—is the best part of the movie, but its impact is somewhat overshadowed and muted by the rest of the proceedings.