Pictured: The film poster for 'Permanent'; a comedy written and directed by Collette Burson, starring Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson and Kira McLean. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/2929 Films
Permanent illustrates a common phenomenon that affects female film directors. After making her feature debut in 2000, Coming Soon, writer-director Colette Burson had to wait seventeen years before her follow-up reached the big screen – well, a limited theatrical window and video on demand. In the mean time, Burson honed her craft in television – she co-created (with her husband Dmitry Lipkin) the HBO television series, Hung, which ran for three seasons between 2009 and 2011 and wrote one episode of the show, The Riches, also created by Lipkin in 2007; the series starred Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, but was otherwise as American as black comedy comes. The American film industry does not forgive failure on the part of women directors very easily. If their films tank at the box office and receive indifferent reviews, when then it must be that the director is not working in the right medium. Male film directors are not treated in the same way.
The excellent news to report is that Permanent is a slickly produced comedy of teenage misfit-hood that has some sitcom qualities but absolutely delivers, humorously and emotionally. Set in Virginia in 1982, it is the story of thirteen year old Aurelie Dixon (Kira McLean) who has lived on air force bases her whole life but has moved into a small town where appearance is everything. She begs her husband to get a perm or permanent. Unfortunately, Dad aka Jim (Rainn Wilson, anticipating Movember with a black tash) has lost his job as a steward on Air Force One – President Reagan asked for a steak, but the fridge only had a pork chop – and is returning to school on a scholarship. Mum aka Jeanne (Patricia Arquette) is the family’s main breadwinner, working as a waitress at a local chicken restaurant. The bottom line is that they don’t have much money. Jeanne takes Aurelie into a beauty school, where Jim fixates on something else (‘how much for the plastic head?’) and Aurelie puts her head in the hands of a student (‘I’m going to be qualified in six weeks’). Her hair is fried.
Pictured: Before the change. Aurelie (Kira McLean) asks for a 'Farrah Fawcett' in 'Permanent', written and directed by Colette Burson. Mom (Patricia Arquette) is in the background. Still courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/2929 Films
Burson’s film documents the consequences of going cheap: being ostracised on the school bus - they make fun of Aurelie’s name too, calling her ‘Orally’ - and subjected to bullying. Her family sign her up for karate classes – the first lesson is free - but she’s not a natural talent. Throw in a boy who wants to finger her, clearly a Harvey Weinstein in training, and an African American girl who wants Aurelie to pay her a dollar a day to be her friend and we are very much in ‘school is hell’ territory.
As storytellers the world over know, you cannot have a feel good comedy without feeling bad first. You can’t make a comedy without the promise of change. So damned if Aurelie doesn’t try to iron her curls out. She gets an opportunity to strike back during a scooter basketball game, but even that ends in her near expulsion – Aurelie’s nemesis is Kelly Keester (Kaleigh Jo Keller) whose position is middle school is maintained through a clique, the bully group of three.
Burson spends as much time with the adults as she does with the kids. Jim has his own hair problem. He wears a wig and lives in fear of losing it whilst swimming in the mandatory ‘you must swim in order to be accepted as a student’ test. (We don’t have that in England.) Jeanne comes home smelling of chicken. In an early scene, she pretends not to be in so as not to accept the ‘welcome to the neighbourhood’ gift basket and the obligatory prying questions. One night, she is drawn out to the yard by whale sound. Her aged neighbour, Jerry (Michael Greene, whose last role was George Bush in the 2001 TV movie, The Day Reagan Was Shot) plays it for solace. He becomes an unlikely love interest for her, turning up at her place of work and also at a couple’s therapy session – she didn’t know he was married. There is also a running joke about one of the teachers being pregnant, which she uses at every opportunity to demand that the class not be so disruptive. (‘It’s bad for my baby.’)
The relationship between Jim and Jeanne becomes almost as frayed as Aurelie’s hair, so much so that she walks out on him – Jerry offers a helpful ladder so she can climb the fence. He has a hot tub in full view of Jim’s house and Jim scowls.
Pictured: After the change. Mom (Patricia Arquette) and Aurelie (Kira McLean) listen to an off-screen Dad (Rainn Wilson) in 'Permanent', written and directed by Colette Burson. Still courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/2929 Films
Although an exercise in nostalgia, it looks forward to better times, notably when Aurelie enters her only friend, kept back in ‘special education’ classes, for the poetry reciting contest. The recitation is a particular crowd rousing high-point, followed by a sequence involving a diving board.
Pictured: It's not easy serving chicken. Jeanne (Patricia Arquette) in 'Permanent', a comedy set in 1982 Virginia written and directed by Colette Burson. Still courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/2929 Films
Perhaps the most interesting and non-Hollywood aspect of the film is Patricia Arquette’s weight gain. I have no idea whether she added pounds intentionally for the role, so as to be a good physical match for Rainn Wilson, or whether after winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2015 with an impassioned speech for equal wages and treatment and headlining one season of CSI Cyber (not as glamorous as Miami or New York), she just stopped hitting the treadmill. A male director might have insisted that Arquette look dowdy yet glamorous. Burson will understand that this is what real women look like. The marketing department does not know quite what to do. It has the top-billed Arquette sitting down and focuses instead on Rainn Wilson, as if it is his hair problems that are the source of entertainment. If women ran marketing departments, we might have a campaign that better reflected the movie and real life.
Now what exactly is that scooter board court game called?