Film Review: Permission

Eye-pleasing, intelligent dive into the relationship dilemmas of some upscale Brooklyn Millennials stays afloat with impressive cast and some will they/won’t they tension.
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Part romantic comedy, part contemporary urban relationship drama, Permission has at its core a thirty-something pair of former college sweethearts living in gentrified Brooklyn who contemplate finally tying the knot, then question the monogamy and fidelity that has gotten them this far. The seed (or is it a weed?) is planted at the film’s get-go when, at a dinner with friends, Anna (Rebecca Hall) declares, “Our sex life is great,” referring to her longtime beau Will (Dan Stevens), and a friend snaps back to the longtime couple, “Compared to what?”

Beyond the naked (sometimes literal) attempt to fathom matters of monogamy, sex and, by default, love, the film pushes no envelopes. But it should attract the usual suspects of quality-seeking, younger indie viewers, a clearly defined demographic of the selfie era happy to see themselves (or what they aspire to be/have) on any screen. This niche will be shamelessly seduced.

Anna and Will are longtime partners since their college-sweetheart days; she’s pursuing a graduate degree in music history while he runs a nearby artisan’s studio as a furniture maker and carpenter. They have plans to soon marry and move into the Brooklyn brownstone that Will is renovating for them. But Anna, reacting to their questioned longtime fidelity, disturbs this lovely bowl of punch when she pushes the potentially toxic proposal that they play around a bit before tying the knot. Good sport Will goes along as it’s “just an experiment,” and they’re off.

While Permission’s world is a polished sliver of white, upscale Millennial urbanites and the key couple are heterosexual, there’s also deep focus on gay couple Hale (David Joseph Craig), Anna’s brother, and his partner Reece (Morgan Spector), who is Will’s assistant in his furniture workshop. (Filmmaker Brian Crano is gay and married.) Hale and Reece have their own dilemma: Hale wants them to bring a child into their family; Reece is not onboard. 

Helping to fire up Hale’s interest in fatherhood are his frequent warm encounters with Glenn (the ever-reliable Jason Sudeikis), an apparent stay-at-home father (straight) who regularly brings his baby to the park where Hale lets his dog run. The sleep-deprived Glenn functions as a kind of recurring Greek chorus invoking the responsibilities that all commitments can bring.

Meanwhile, Anna and Will try other sexual partners. There are some misses of no interest, but important scores that drive the plot more impactfully than the aroused ids. Anna’s begin after she is rescued from an unwanted bar encounter by pop composer Dane (François Arnaud). He and Anna click and go the distance. For his part, Will becomes ensnared by real ex-housewife of Brooklyn turned hungry cougar Lydia (Gina Gershon), a tacky nouveau-riche divorcée who, fueled by a generous settlement and pure lust, stumbles into Will’s workshop. She first fancies a table he built, then Will himself. With Lydia all afire for the kill, she gets Will to her large duplex apartment, using all manner of slinky seduction and boosters. Lydia even makes her come-on line, “You smell like my father,” sound sexy.

Except for falling behind on her thesis, Anna appears better adjusted to this new liberation. Will grows irritable, but the two reconcile here and there to openly and even lovingly discuss their various new flings as if they’re mere hobbies. But the liaisons grow more intrusive and all becomes not so quiet on the home front. Tension mounts and is sustained throughout regarding whether they will or won’t hew to their long-held plans to marry and settle down. Even Hale and Reece find themselves on a high wire regarding their baby dilemma.

From start to finish, Permission takes a magnifying glass and garden claw to personal issues of marriage, monogamy, relationships, procreation and sex. With its traditional Cosmopolitan magazine concerns headlined, no problems beyond theirs enter this picture of gentrified neighborhoods and sleek, high-gloss apartment and loft interiors boasting neon, brick, trendy furniture, high ceilings and gleaming kitchens worthy of upscale real estate brochures.

The cast playing these materially comfortable but questioning older Millennials is excellent, again featuring Brits as Americans. Prolific “Downton Abbey” alum Dan Stevens, jumping the pond for a feature career and testing a variety of genres along the way, again can do no wrong (but checking off a second big-screen hit besides co-starring in the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast might be nice). Hall does fine in her rather colorless role, but Gershon as steamy Lydia flirts dangerously with caricature (though filmmaker Crano might share blame here).

Cinematography is lovely as it reflects a keen desire to dazzle and immerse. Interior shots feature endless overhead shots and exteriors deliver many sparkling nocturnal skylines of New York that give the city a supporting role.

In its more substantial moments, Permission seems intent on plumbing the intimacies and interpersonal honesties that informed much of classic foreign cinema (from the likes of Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman and those of the U.K.’s Kitchen Sink school). Also notable is the film’s worthy-of-contemplation ending.

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