Rainn Wilson and Patricia Arquette lead an admirable, albeit flat family drama.
Opening with a shot of flowing, blonde hair, there’s no mistaking Permanent takes place in the 80s. The permanent in this film, however, stands as something more than just a hairstyle, but rather a sort of metaphor for growing up and dealing with all of the bold decisions that come with getting older; whether it be making new friends in a strange place, or letting your mother talk you into getting your permanent done at a beauty school.
After moving to a small town in Virginia, young teen Aurelie (Kira McLean) and her parents Jim and Jeanne Dixon (Rainn Wilson and Patricia Arquette), attempt to adjust to their new life in the south. With that move comes all of the typical struggles that await those who find themselves in a new place. A retired “airline steward” from the Air Force and aspiring doctor, Jim finds himself enrolled in a medical school which requires him to take up swimming, something he seems as terrified of as intimacy with his wife. During this, Jeanne finds herself unhappy with her home and work life and searches for some kind of outlet. All the while, Aurelie faces bullying at the hands of some young southern adolescents who don’t seem to take too well to her curly hair, unique name, and advanced education.
At the heart of it the film’s good intentions toward addressing problems of bullying and growing up are clear, but somewhere along the way it gets lost in all of the southern caricatures. They feel almost unrealistic in their personalities at times, and the school kids’ extreme dislike for Aurelie feels a little forced and overdone. Then again, the act of bullying itself is nothing more than forced superiority so the film may be onto something there. And it is a comedy, after all, so caricatures and satire may also be the goal. However, this satirical feeling probably wasn’t meant to carry over to some of the more serious scenes.
And even though we were probably meant to follow or relate with Aurelie the most, viewers will likely be drawn more to Jeanne’s character whose issue is surprisingly not at all hair-related unlike the root of Aurelie and Jim’s problems. Now, whether this is because of the character herself, or because Arquette is stellar in most everything she does, is another question, but either way, Jeanne’s quirks are the most charming of the film.
That being said, using hair and hairstyles as an overarching theme in the film is an interesting choice for addressing deeper problems within ourselves. In our culture, no matter if it’s the 80s, 20s, or today, we often place great importance on appearance. It only makes sense that because of this our concern for our appearances would stand in the way of us moving forward in situations that require introspection. And the parallel that is drawn between Aurelie and her dad makes a larger commentary on how appearance can affect both men and women of any age at any stage in their lives.
It isn’t so much that Permanent lacks story or meaning, but rather, its overall narrative feels a little flat in its execution. It never quite builds an engaging universe which results it viewers being stuck outside of it as observers rather than participants in the tale. Some of the jokes are easily missed, and some of the interactions are a little cringeworthy.
Still, its attempt at trying to connect surface level problems to a larger meaning is admirable in its own right, and what the story lacks in execution it gains in a few articulate hair metaphors.