Film Review: Permanent

Winning performances overcome the strained comedy.
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It may be presumptuous to assume, but it seems a safe bet that writer-director Colette Burson once got a really, really bad haircut when she was a teenager. At least, that's the impression one gets from her new comedy starring Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson and Kira McLean in a breakout performance as a young girl who suffers a disastrous perm. While it doesn't break any new ground and strains too hard for quirkiness, Permanent didn't deserve its fate of opening theatrically without being screened for critics.

Set in 1982 in a Virginia suburb, the story concerns 13-year-old Aurelie (McLean), whose name practically invites ridicule from her classmates, and her financially struggling parents, Jim (Wilson) and Jeanne (Arquette). Jim has recently lost his job as a steward serving on Air Force One (he has the signed autographs from several U.S. presidents to prove it) and is attempting to start over by going back to university to get a medical degree. Jeanne supports the family by waitressing at a fried chicken joint, spending so many hours on her feet that she's desperate for a foot massage when she comes home at night. Neither that desire nor her sexual needs are being met by her husband.

Desperate to fit in at her new school, Aurelie begs her parents to let her get a permanent. When her parents take her to a "beauty school" to save money, the results are a disaster. "Her hair looks like it had a stroke," the owner whispers to the stylist who made Aurelie resemble the Bride of Frankenstein. Her father tries to comfort her by assuring her that her hair will soon "relax." When her classmates see Aurelie's new hairdo, they mock her for having an "Afro."

Jim has hair issues of his own, since he religiously wears a lavish toupee to cover his bald pate. His vanity threatens to derail his future when he's informed that he'll have to take a swimming course as part of his university curriculum and he tries to pass it by doing the breaststroke.

Other subplots include Jeanne's flirtation with an eccentric neighbor (Michael Greene) who at night plays recordings of the sounds of mating whales and is eventually revealed to be a family therapist, and Aurelie's growing friendship with a young black girl at school (Nena Daniels) who has been relegated to a special-needs classroom simply because of her race.

Writer-director Burson, who co-created HBO's “Hung,” doesn't fully succeed in navigating her more outlandish plot elements. Many of the would-be comic bits, especially those involving the kooky neighbor, fall flat, and the storyline goes in too many directions at once. But the film displays genuine heart in its quieter moments exploring the strains in Jim and Jeanne's marriage and Aurelie's insecurities and desperation to fit in with the kids at school who respond by bullying her.

The performances are another plus. Arquette is charmingly endearing as the frustrated Jeanne, Wilson movingly conveys his character's vulnerability as well as his bluster, and McLean is terrific as the beleaguered young girl desperate to have a mane like Farrah Fawcett's.--The Hollywood Reporter

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