The first thing you need to know about the Rebecca Hall/Dan Stevens movie Permission is it is not a rom-com. The tone of its trailer suggests it is. And yes, there are funny moments, but Brian Crano’s latest film gives us neither the sprightly, lovey life-affirming humor of that genre nor the pat happy ending of a rom-com. Instead, he gives Permission a tremulous tone that’s in turns sexy, tender, and heart-trembling.
Hall and Stevens star as New Yorkers Anna and Will, a pair of childhood sweethearts whose loving relationship is cozy, and whose sex life has become routine. Getting married seems a pleasant inevitability. But before Will can pop the question at Anna’s 30th birthday party, their cynical friend Reese (Morgan Spector) scoffs at the idea that the couple can know good sex or true happiness when they’ve only known each other. His drunken rant inspires Anna and Will to give each other permission to sleep with other people.
This premise has been done before in Hall Pass and The Freebie, but here the flirtations and hook-ups aren’t played for laughs as much as tension. Yeah, Will and Anna’s sex life has become stale, but Stevens and Hall share an undeniable chemistry. So even as they go together to a pick-up bar to find one-night-stands, you’re pulling for them to work it out. Which makes every interaction emotionally fraught. As Anna’s face lights up when a hot piano player (François Arnaud) hits on her, your heart races for her, then breaks for Will, who looks on with reluctance. Permission works in some comedy, like when Will goes on a drug-tripping date with a kinky divorcee (Gina Gershon). But more than anything, each night of meaningless sex elsewhere pulls a thread that threatens to untangle Anna and Will’s future together.
To Crano’s credit, he doesn’t shortchange the supporting players with one-dimensional hook-up partners. As charming as Stevens and Hall are together, Arnaud sparks with her too. He not only bares his body, allowing us to thirst as Anna does, but also brings a seductive warmth and brewing pathos as a fool in love. Meanwhile, Gershon subverts expectations. Sure, at first she seems a sexy cougar, hungry for the strong hands of Steven’s Brooklyn carpenter. But a scene where she’s caught make-up free and folding laundry subverts this stereotype and cracks open the character to be more than a fantasy or the lusty “other woman.”
But this is not a drama about the drawbacks of monogamy. Sex is the excuse, fear is the reason. Turning 30, considering marriage, Anna is afraid that her life is set, and thereby over. So she’s rebelling, grasping for her youth with flirtations, hook-ups, and reckless behavior. And she’s not the only one risking her relationship. There’s a thoughtful subplot about a gay couple debating having a baby. Anna’s brother Hale (David Joseph Craig) dreams of being a dad, but his partner Reese resists even having this conversation. It’s a could-be breaking point that Permission handles with care and insight.
Thinking this was a rom-com, I felt confident that no matter what obstacles came the way of these two couples, their love would win out. But Crano’s romantic drama allows for no such simple solution. And perhaps that’s fair. Perhaps it’s earned. Perhaps my expectations were the problem. But I see it, all the emotional intelligence and tension that Permission played out through the growing pains of grown-up relationships is wasted in the final five minutes, where earnest subversion overtakes sense.
Permission opens February 9th.