Permanent, written and directed by Colette Burson, stars the incomparable Patricia Arquette as Jeanne Dickson, the wife of Jim Dickson played by Rainn Wilson from the American “The Office” TV series. Both Arquette and Wilson are a joy to watch even in these banal roles. Jim and Jeanne have a teenage daughter, Aurelie Dickson (Kira McLean) who is just an awkward and smart kid growing up in the1980s and struggling with being one of the many lackluster kids who look towards Charlie’s Angels, and teen heartthrobs to fulfill their fantasies. As it turns out, the 1980s are not only a time of change and ineptness for the daughter, but also for her parents, as they adjust to living outside the military base where they were deeply rooted and had respective places and tasks. Jim was a steward on Airforce One, and his identity came from close contact with its passengers, all his insecurities and lack of education were laid to rest in his work identity and under his cheap toupee. When the family moves to burbs, they find life and their existence is nothing more than mediocre and are in a dire financial situation. Permanent has a stellar cast and potential to be really funny and memorable – but it isn’t. The cast is wasted on second-rate roles due to a hollow script, and so the film falls flat, and a lack of conflict doesn’t help.
What little conflict there is revolves around hair, the volume of it, the shape of it, or the lack of it. Hair in art and hair in fashion, have been topics of study and observation for centuries, and in the 1980s hair was everything to emerging identities of beauty across the board, big hair, feathered, hair, shaved hair, etc. When Aurelie starts a new school, she just wants to look like Farrah Fawcet, is that too much to ask? Given the family’s financial hardships, Aurelie gets a perm, but not a good one. The plot goes on from there, predictably, with no turns or twists, even the mean girls are just not that mean.
Permanent is not just disappointing, it’s irritating because it’s got all the ingredients to be better than it is. Burson is on to something with addressing hair and its significance in society, she sets up the dynamics and then simply doesn’t execute. Hair is a big deal, it is an indicator of social attitudes, and these can be used to measure misogyny, racism, bigotry, and the artificiality of beauty standards. For example, about seven years ago, there was a graduate survey done at an art school in NYC. The investigation looked into the representation of hair in art, mainly paintings of women made by men across the centuries and how it influenced students in the present cohort. The results showed a proclivity by male painters to hide, tame, or take away hair from the female subjects, and this is a trend over the long history of painting. Many questions arose, such as, is hair, be it pubic, underarm or untamed head hair on women (especially women of color) that threatening to men? Is the depiction of hair in art (film, paintings, etc.) and act of empowerment? The survey suggested that the cohort at the art academy in the 2010s in large part had accepted the standard of minimizing hair in art. Furthermore, they emulated the practice. There are other theories about the symbolism of hair that are critical of beauty practices like Brazilian waxing because the lack of pubic hair in real life is seen as the infantilization of women and ultimately give power to their male lovers. But back to Permanent, none of these concepts will be found in the film. Permanent has permanently missed the boat.
Bear Tooth Theatrepub
PG-13 for crude sexual references, language and thematic elements
Monday, February 5 at 5:30PM