It’s amazing how the smallest semblance of difference is enough to make someone an outcast, especially in high school. The sophomore feature from writer/director Colette Burson (HBO’s ‘Hung’) is a quirky cringe comedy character study of small town outsiders and how their own neuroses are often the cause of their shunning.
It all starts with a bad haircut, quickly spiraling into a larger tapestry of goofballs that somehow still feels like an overlong short film despite the ambitions of all involved.
Talented teen actress Kira McLean stars as Aurelie. Desperate to upgrade her image to help her slot into the social hierarchy at her new school, Aurelie badgers her parents (Patricia Arquette and Rainn Wilson) to get her a permanent. She hopes to look like Farrah Fawcett, but she ends up looking like Little Orphan Annie once the budget cut comes through. Obviously, that only cements her outcast status, which springboards Burson’s script into a series of humiliations and insecurities from a broad collection of caricatures. Aurelie’s family is stricken with poverty, which prevents Mommy from ever following her dreams (mostly involving touching dolphins), while Daddy has a horrible wig and his own collection of hair-centric social anxieties. At school, Aurelie befriends Lydia (Nena Daniels), the token black girl who is shoved into remedial classes purely due to her race. Toss in a bunch of pervy teens and a dirty old man therapist, as well as plenty of other broken toy versions of adults and kiddies, and you’ve got the makings for a cringe comedy about prejudice and self-loathing.
If Burson achieves nothing else as a filmmaker, it’s a remarkable sense of place. Set in a cartoonish parody of early 1980s aesthetic excess and Southern small town eccentricity, ‘Permanent’ boasts a non-stop barrage of goofballs and bad fashion. Every image is strikingly bizarre and amusing, and every character just weird enough to be memorable. The movie seems to take place in another universe while still feeling specific enough to be grounded. It’s hilarious and weird and real.
Too bad the script is as fussy and overly calculated as the production design. While Burson gets plenty of big laughs out of her parade of humiliations, few characters have the depth to make much emotional impact. Aside from the central trio family, everyone on screen feels like a one-note joke or manipulative screenwriting tactic. When the film strains to move beyond comedy to deliver a message or tweak the heartstrings, it seems forced, almost like Burson figured out the subject of her movie as an afterthought while dreaming up the ridiculous costumes and characterizations.
McLean, Arquette and Wilson are all hysterical and know how broadly to pitch their performances even if the movie around them strains for unearned depth. They’re a lovably strange gang who belong in a quirky TV comedy. In a way, ‘Permanent’ feels like more like a TV pilot than a movie. It sets a tone, crafts a world, and delivers characters who would very much be worth following in further stories. The themes are hinted at in ways that could be teased out in later episodes with more depth rather than the hastily issued pat conclusions in the third act. Burson came up with some brilliant material for a TV series and then tacked on an anticlimactic finale to make it feel like a movie. The film is a big missed opportunity. However, it at least proves that Burson has a strong and unique voice as both writer and director. Hopefully on the next project she either discovers how to tell a contained story or heads back to television to slowly hash out an ending over a few years in a writer’s room.