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A drama teacher's taboo relationship with an unstable student strikes a nerve in her jealous classmate, sparking a vengeful chain of events within their suburban high school that draws parallels to 'The Crucible'.
Trieste Kelly Dunn,
Set over one summer, the film follows precocious six-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.
It's 1982, and the Dicksons (Jim, Jeanne, and Aurelie) move (are the new-comers) to a southern town where all the girls long for Farrah Fawcett-type curls (to match their back-woods accents/ and love to talk hair./ and obsess over their hair.) Pre-teen AURELIE begs her parents for a permanent, (known outside the south as a perm) hoping for life-changing curly waves but when they take her to a Beauty School instead of a salon to save money, disaster ensues. A bored Student-Beautician accidentally sets the timer for too long, and the perm ends up destroying Aurelie's already low-grade social life as well as her hair follicles. Aurelie is left as a gawky yet endearing young teenager trying to navigate junior high with what some kids call an afro, then throw things at her, from epithets to dodgeballs. Written by
Permanent, the new film by writer/director Colette Burson, opens with the ineffable sound-language of sea mammals; whales, dolphins. And the mysteries of communication and connectivity those beyond our ken as mere human beings - preoccupy the narrative here too. For all of its gratifications (and packaging) as a comedy, this is also a lovely, brave, and even necessary film. A film about not just the awkwardness of adolescence, but the persistent awkwardness of adulthood and the hinge points between frustration and love that bind together the middle class American family. One that examines, at its core, not the more trammeled ground of disaffected sons and their brittle mothers or taciturn fathers, nor even the subterranean love/hate competitions of mothers and daughters themselves, but instead the under-examined everyday of a father/daughter interconnection.
This might be unsurprising given the source of the material, Burson, who created the gender role subverting Hung television series for HBO. But what ennobles this material, beyond the too-infrequent instance of a perspective from a woman writer/director, is the particularity of its vision and tone. This is a film that obeys its own rules, even creates them. She's working in the idiosyncratic landscape that's been the rubric of a Wes Anderson or a Todd Solondz. but with what turns out to be a refreshing and reanimating optimism.
It helps that the father in question, Jim, is played by Rainn Wilson, the actor who played the punctilious and corporate-climbing Dwight Schrute on TV's The Office. Wilson's Jim is similarly self- deluding and ceremonious, but considerably more vulnerable and, in the end, redeemable. The role gives Wilson a chance to show capacities he could not as pontificating Dwight. Burson gives Wilson his share of wordless moments here silences that he handles with assurance of a Bill Murray but in a way that's strictly his own. His Jim is a man who's hard to fathom but, for us in the end, possible to love.
Jim is most outwardly tied to his daughter Aurelie (Kira McLean) by a certain follicular vanity. Thirteen year old Aurelie's problem is a self-imposed bad hair day (the "permanent" of the film's title) that is threatening to last weeks, if not months, and just as she's embarking on a new-girl in school period. Jim's is male pattern baldness and the lengths he may go to secrete it. But the linkages between the two are more than external. And Burson evinces this not by way of climactic confession, but largely by simply by placing the two together over and over in the workaday world they each inhabit whether alone as a duet or in a troika with Aurelie's mother Jeanne (Patricia Arquette). This family bickers and snipes at one another to the point of, well, tearing their hair out. But the essential and indelible fact is that they accompany one another through the banalities of their otherwise unremarkable environs and in instances that build upon themselves over the arc of the narrative until the whole is noticeably greater than the sum of its parts.. (Examples include a delightfully weird game of low-rent badminton, and frequenting a local indoor pool that resonates with a kind of shimmering drabness, ).
In the role of Jeanne, Arquette, too, is a revelation. The actress respected for the penetrating authenticity she has brought to dramatic roles like Mom in Richard Linklater's Boyhood here applies the same kind of skinless commitment in a role that asks her to fling herself into what some might call the frivolous. There's a broadness to the clashes here, the fits of pique and the eruptions of familial finger-pointing. But it all rings true in the way a Far Side square rings true beneath its surface exaggerations. Arquette's in-self-consciousness as a performer, her innate bravery, serves this material in what's perhaps a different way than it does in Boyhood. But the service to the whole is the same. When she bustles a little plumply around the family's resolutely modest home, its gray-green lawns, in her ill-fitting wash-faded clothing, or vaults twice, at least a little clumsily, over a fence or wall once on her way to what seems like freedom, and once upon metaphorically returning she is as embraceable as a Pooh bear.
Speaking of ill-fitting, in the central role of Aurelie, McLean verily embodies the kind of adolescent disarrangement that's at the heart of the narrative. It's not just that, at this stage, her 1980s department store habiliments don't quite fit her body, It's that, as with the denizens of American middle-schools everywhere. her body doesn't quite fit her body. She splays out in charmingly unpredictable angles, a ganglia of weedy arms and legs to match her blundered mop-top. The pain of this ubiquitous transitional phase is apparent in her every elongated stride, every folding of razor elbows across the bone- blade of chest. You want to cry for her struggles and somehow hurry her through them. And to say "Don't worry. This will one day mercifully end. More or less."
Perhaps it's that feeling for fragility that sets Burson's work here appealingly apart from the likes of her arguable cinematic cousin, Anderson. As with films like Rushmore and The Grand Budapest Hotel, what unifies Burson's film is often less the narrative itself and more the consistency and originality of it's tone the whale song of an unique sensibility sounding out behind it all. But what Burson adds that Anderson often doesn't is a fearless embrace of both human vulnerability and the potential for triumph. There is a buoyancy to it, An exuberance that carries you along in spite of yourself. It's stylized without being detached. And its comic exaggerations hew close enough to the bone (like the aforementioned Murray's painfully but only slightly bad lounge singer character from SNL) that they bring us easily back to authenticity the authenticity of our own familiar and recognizable ungainliness.
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