When it comes to relationships, does the quality of one transcend the experience of being with multiple people? Does knowing oneself only come through trying different things, or is it enough to realize what you have now is good enough? These questions of identity and how their fluidity comes at any age is at the heart of Brian Crano's romantic drama Permission. Though open relationships aren't particularly taboo in the era of Tindr, Permission positions them within a relationship brimming with trust. Can a relationship involving multiple partners ever work if the couple at the center actively share everything with each other? Crano's feature has possibility, and though character balance feels skewed, with certain people possessing far more narrative potential than others, it's hard to ignore this film.
Anna and Will (Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens) have been together since childhood. With Anna turning thirty she comes to the realization that Will, who's planning their life in terms of forever, will be the only man she'll ever know sexually. Goaded by a mutual friend, the couple decides to seek outside sex partners, with the caveat that they'll tell each other everything that happens. But, unfortunately, the two soon realize that being with other people compels them to look deeper at their own wants and desires. Have they been missing out?
We've seen the drama that comes from lovers cheating on each other - the resultant guilt and questioning of whom the person loves more fuel the runtime. In this case, the two leads are guilty by just thinking about being with others. Anna and Will are written so typically that you immediately expect their sex life to be boring, and based on the opening scene it is. They've only slept with each other, leaving their friend Reece (Morgan Spector) to drunkenly plant the bug in their ear that they can't really know if they're perfect for each other if there's no basis for comparison. What Crano does is take the familiar and push it just enough to bring in a new level of realism. Hall and Stevens aid in this with an easy chemistry that's sweetly executed. Their nuzzling and other moments of touch indicate a level of comfort that evokes their long-term relationship. So as Anna and Will ponder the nature of seeing other people it turns them on to the point that they have a crazy night of passion. What's hinted at is that their familiarity leads to routine, but they can still muster up the intrigue to find new avenues of learning about each other. The idea of being with other people becomes the turn-on under which it manifests literally.
Once Reece puts the idea in their heads, Anna becomes the instigator towards pursuing outside partners. Ordinarily this is open and shut, through the act of being with others each realizes what they truly love about the other. But Crano, who wrote the script as well as directed, understands relationships aren't cut and dry. Anna soon meets a sensitive musician named Dane (Francois Arnaud) who fosters her neglected interest in performing and makes her question her love for Will. Like Will, Dane could just as easily be the perfect man for Anna, a fact helped by Arnaud's devil-may-care attitude and general ability to charm anyone.
The problem lies with how little we understand about what Anna wants. It could be the script doesn't know what Anna wants, and that, in itself is the point. But it makes for a character who seems ancillary to her own story. Hall is wonderful, regardless of the situation, but she often gets lost in the storylines and characters that are better written than her own.She goes around having aimless sex, which, in cinema, usually culminates with condemnation or celebration, but we don't see the "fun" she talks about experiencing. By the third act, Anna loses track of school, and is in the "crash and burn" phase that often accompanies female characters who express their sexuality. It's disappointing, especially considering the other female character here has a more fascinating arc. If the goal is for Anna to find her own agency and identity, then the script can't pack in other people.
it is the others who draw attention more than Anna's journey of self-discovery. The aforementioned Dan Stevens is great, but like Anna his narrative doesn't hit the right beats. Where Anna's plot feels ill-defined Stevens' Will has a "been there, done that" quality. With Anna off having casual encounters he catches the eye of an older divorcee named Lydia (Gina Gershon). The two start going at it, but eventually Will decides to get to know Lydia leading to an Ecstasy-fueled day of revelations. When Stevens is allowed to indulge his quirky side, so wonderfully showcased in FX's Legion, he's a delight. His camaraderie with Gershon is on the level of a best friend.
Gershon, for her part, is utterly brilliant! It's worth making a romantic drama just about her character. Laying in the bathtub with Will discussing her ex-husband, a man she'd planned forever around, is a fantastic counterpoint to Will's current dilemma yet, like Anna, Lydia's gifted a sexual freedom that's never condemnded. Gershon can be serious yet infuses lines with humor that plays as genuine. Her final scene does come out of nowhere, more a shocking gag than anything organic, but it's difficult to be harsh when she's just so amazing.
An additional subplot involves Anna's brother Hale (David Joseph Craig) and his desire to have a baby with his partner, Reece. Hale and Reece's relationship is a bright light, offering a narrative that's often unexplored in mainstream cinema. The "I want a baby" plot is often limited to females, with an emphasis on their ever-ticking biological clocks. Hale loves Reece but can't convince the man to commit to taking a step that only one of them wants. Hale eventually meets a tired father (Jason Sudeikis) who opens the door towards Hale making a decision that might involve single fatherhood. Craig and Spurlock are equally fantastic and, again, transcend the A-plotline. The film doesn't take the route of having a grand epiphany, but more a quiet resignation that people can't be forced to change.
When the pieces fall into place, that's when Permission deepens into a different examination of relationships. Hall, as the biggest name, does feel adrift but the rest of the cast are superb, especially Gershon.
Permission comes to theaters and VOD Friday