Before you even meet Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) in “Permission,” you hear the most intimate of negotiations between the two as they are about to have sex. While something seems off about this exchange – neither of this long-time pair is really into it — it’s notable the positions they take after, with Anna asking for the remote, going to bed unsatisfied, while he curls up with his pillow so close yet so very far away, echoing any number of films that we’ve seen before, only with the roles reversed. This sets the tone for Brian Crano’s second feature, which flips the script on traditional gender roles to put a provocative spin on the “hall pass” idea that has served as the plot of so many sitcoms and indie films before where a longtime couple gives each other a mulligan to sleep with someone else consequence-free.
In the case of Anna and Will, this offer comes as she learns that he has only slept with her during a dinner with their longtime friends and couple in their own right, Reece (a scene-stealing Morgan Spector) and Hale (David Joseph Craig). The revelation doesn’t exactly faze Anna, who has tired of having unexciting sex with Will, but it sparks the notion that he might need some practice before they move in together to a brownstone he’s refurbishing during his off-hours. This being a comedy, they are awkwardly considering the prospect of acting as each other’s wingman soon enough at a bar, but “Permission” takes the discontent of its characters seriously and is better for it. Insightful in highlighting the differing attitudes towards the experiment based on the characters’ chromosomes – Anna’s fine with Will sleeping around so long as he tells her about it while Will’s accepting of the arrangement, but actively doesn’t want to hear about Anna’s exploits – the film also successfully takes on a larger cultural question as the characters start wondering if their individual satisfaction is more important than what they have and can build together with a partner.
As a result, “Permission” has some of the emptiest utterances of “I love you” you’ll ever hear, becoming Anna’s go-to phrase during intercourse and Will’s words when he can think of nothing else to say after planning to propose before his pre-Anna virginity comes up, showing how easily the words can lose all meaning as reassurance rather than when they emerge from actual passion. Yet as devoid of originality as the two are in coming up with ways to comfort one another, Crano and cinematographer Adam Bricker bring some striking visual flourishes in terms of bold colors and unconventional angles to reflect the chasm between where the characters are and where they want to be, often told through the environments they pass through. The film also has a pair of highly versatile actors to handle the shifting tones in Hall and Stevens, who may not be most people’s first choice to play a nebbishy carpenter but thankfully booked too many dashing leading man parts beforehand to be typecast now in this role, impressive though he is.
Not everything in “Permission” works. A parallel story of Reece and Hale at odds over whether to adopt a child intrigues, but doesn’t quite rise to the level of Anna and Will’s storyline despite being looked to as a contrast, and as much as Crano and crew push the envelope with the film’s overarching conceit, you might wish a few more chances were taken scene to scene as “Permission” occasionally resembles the past narratives it’s trying to subvert too closely. However, the film is daring enough to earn your goodwill early and as it unfolds, it’s refreshing to see a film about relationships that aims for the head more than the heart.