Everyone has an Anna (Rebecca Hall) and a Will (Dan Stevens) in their life, a pair so attached to one another at the hip over so many years, the very idea their relationship might be missing something is practically comical. Brian Crano’s Permission, his sophomore feature film, explores that possibility, probing its leads’ wants and hopes and dreams through sexual awakening and bedroom comedy. More often than not the lines between the sexual awakening part and the bedroom comedy part blur, and that’s when they’re even detectable at all. When you’re committed to another person, you might be be surprised how easily the search for self through casual sex can churn up easy laughs.
Even at their breeziest, Crano’s punchlines cost exorbitant amounts of discomfort. Technically, there isn’t anything wrong with the romantic dynamic Anna and Will have carved out for themselves: They’re lifelong sweethearts, and love forged over a literal lifetime has distinct sentimental merit—most people should be so lucky to find that at all—but talking over Anna’s birthday dinner with Hale (David Joseph Craig), Anna’s brother and Reece (Morgan Spector), Hale’s boyfriend, calls the singular longevity of her bond with Will into question. Cracks begin to show, or maybe there weren’t any up until the point Reece opens his mouth and starts talking about their sex life.
“Our sex life is really, really great,” Anna tells him with a nervous smile. “Compared to what?” he replies, void of charm and loaded with judgment. (It’s predictable that Reece turns out to be a self-centered asshole. At least he apologizes by crying “drunk.”) Like any fire worth its accelerant, Reece’s indictment of their serial monogamy spreads quickly through their hearts and minds. Soon, our love birds agree to an open relationship of sorts, with both of them free to pursue flings and liaisons as they like. Anna hooks up with an emo musician named Dane (François Arnaud); Will flirts with Lydia (Gina Gershon), a divorcee who wanders into the custom woodworking business he runs with Reece. You can wring a lot of juice from that premise, and Crano squeezes hard enough to grind the pips.
There’s a justified audacity to the questions Permission asks, harmless in theory and potentially cataclysmic in practice. What happens when you step outside the established bounds of your relationship? When you’ve only known one romantic partner for the entirety of your adult life, what do you end up learning by spending a night with a stranger? And, most of all, how do you stay committed to your significant other when you’re busy slamming ass all over town? To a point, Anna and Will’s experiment takes on shades of danger, though the film never develops an edge in its tone. It’s a gentle, coaxing attempt at deconstructing coupling.
Will’s enthusiasm for testing the waters is the best evidence of Permission’s magnanimity—and also happens to be its Achilles’ heel. There’s something wonderfully and contemporarily masculine about a guy giving serious consideration to Reece’s comments, not simply for himself but for his partner. Maybe Anna has missed out because of Will, on experiences and opportunities that she never had because of their enduring affection for each other. Maybe Will has too, or else he wouldn’t have lied to Reece in college about his sexual conquests. But Crano’s biggest mistake is in his characterization of Will, played for laughs as a midwestern nebbish and ineffectual lover, which undermines Permission’s thesis: If Will can’t hack it in bed, then there’s less question over what Anna’s missing in life. (In short: orgasms.)
The effect of Will’s timidity tends to creep us out, too. Scenes that might play as innocuous become unsettling when they shouldn’t. In this scenario you can’t blame the man for feeling anxious at his inadequacy in light of his girlfriend’s lover, but Will is so milquetoast that his fixations read as violatory. Stevens is a hoot as the awkward shy guy, but these qualities don’t serve his character well. By contrast Hall’s arc is better fleshed out, more lived in, such that when Anna arrives at her own conclusions about what she’s looking for in life we’re clapping for her. Permission may be about two people figuring out who they are as individuals after being a “we” for as long as they’ve known each other, but through Anna’s perspective, Permission is about the painful process of self-discovery and the sacrifices made in pursuit of identity—sexual and otherwise.
Tangential to Anna and Will are Hale and Reece and their quarrel over parenthood. Hale wants a baby. Reece can’t understand why he isn’t enough for Hale. It’s the kind of secondary plot thread another film would leave unfulfilled, but Crano makes the balancing act look absurdly easy. (If he so chose, Crano could have left Hale and Reece on the cutting room floor and shaped a sequel around them.) Theirs is as equally a heartbreaking story of mismatched desires, a counterweight to the picture’s carnal nature. As Anna and Will engage in affairs of the flesh, Hale has an affair of the heart with Jason Sudeikis’s Glenn. It’s a bittersweet note to compliment the messy, endlessly complicated profile Crano constructs around his leads.
Director: Brian Crano
Writer: Brian Crano
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, David Joseph Craig, Morgan Spector, François Arnaud, Gina Gershon, Jason Sudeikis
Release Date: February 9, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.