Before we’re educated enough to even spell “tequila,” we’re told that alcohol is generally an Off-Limits, Grown-Up Thing reserved for special occasions, like weddings, the New Year’s Eve ball drop, or the post-divorce papers signing party your mercurial and slightly immature aunt insists on throwing. After-school television specials and the D.A.R.E. program taught us to resist the liquid temptation in our youth, an endeavor the majority of us who have now evolved into semi-adult status quickly abandoned come our twenties. But the warnings weren’t entirely baseless. Too much alcohol leads to one of two prominent outcomes: you end up practically French-kissing the inside of your toilet bowl and are subsequently forced to slog through a brain-burning hangover, or your drunk brain shuts off its filter, you let your subconscious spill out via verbal waterfall, and are — bingo — subsequently forced to slog through a hangover, this time of the emotional, regretful, “What in the Sweet Hell Have I Done?” kind.
In director Brian Crano’s Permission, the latter happens.
Ostensibly happy couple Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) float through their shared life content with the notion of being together forever, a state of being not unsurprising considering they’ve spent ten years growing their soul-vines around one another in a committed, monogamous relationship. At the decade mark, Will stands on the precipice of proposal, looking toward the big white wedding and happily-ever-after films and music have exalted since the construction of weddings and happily-ever-afters. Anna, too, is about to enter a new stage of her life: her thirties, the chunk of time in a woman’s life that she’s been told she should hate, for she’s giving up the freedom of her younger years.
And then alcohol enters the picture.
At Anna’s 30th birthday festivities, Will’s closest pal and current business partner Reece (Morgan Spector) has a little too much of the good stuff makes a fatal (though innocent) misstep. He points out that Anna and Will aren’t like normal exclusive couples in long-term relationships. They’re special for the fact that they’re a duo of firsts — first kiss, first sexual partner, first love. They are “perfect and constant and inevitable and boring.” With matrimony on the horizon (though Anna doesn’t know it yet), Anna and Will are affronted with themselves: the woodworking furniture maker and the graduate student who have routine, missionary-style sex, who are relatively unfulfilled in life, and who have never wondered about what between-the-sheets rendezvous with other people are like. Until now.
The foundation of their relationship — though never imperfect — begins to crack after her birthday dinner, with the implication of Reece’s words spurring Anna’s anxiety to bubble to a wild boil and her mind to construct an idea she’d normally never dream of. Operating under the worry that she’s missed the boat on some major life moments, Anna suggests that AnnaandWill become Anna and Will again by opening up their relationship sexually while remaining romantically linked. It’s a turn everyone can see coming (it’s a film all about monogamy, after all), but it throws Will for a loop. And even when Reece admits the error of his ways, apologizing for his champagne-fueled word vomit, Anna and Will agree to swing, if only to test their satisfaction with where they might land.
Even after ten years together, their flirting skills rusty and their ability to pick up on cues of sexual attraction a little worse for wear, jumping back into the vast dating pool that ebbs and flows through the bustling streets of New York City doesn’t pose too big a problem for Anna and Will. The two take to the town as a team (bringing a whole new meaning to the term “wingman”), and Anna strikes corporeal gold in Dane (François Arnaud), a man who is outwardly everything Will isn’t. He’s the antithesis to Anna’s rudimentary existence: a rock-and-roll musician and historian who, when he’s not thumbing through pages of sheet music, refines his thesis titled “Female Composers + Feminism – Matriarchal Pedagogy = Feminist Composers.” Equally excited about Anna’s newfound vivacity and dismayed at the fact that Dane is responsible for it, Will encourages the fling. When Anna brings Dane home, Will, gritting his teeth through pangs of jealousy, gives her permission to take him to bed, too.
Will finds something like luck in divorcée Lydia (Gina Gershon), whom he meets in his furniture store a little later. For Will, Lydia is also the binary opposite of the partner they know so well. Lydia is older, overtly sexual, and unashamed, with a penchant for luxurious home decor and psychedelic drugs. She offers Will an outlet for sexual liberation and he grasps it tightly, freeing himself from the confines of what he’s always known and leaping into what he’s repressed for so long. (Spoiler: it includes a lotta spit.)
While our two central lovebirds experiment with their new lovers, the subplot of Reece and his long-term partner, Anna’s brother Hale (Joseph David Craig), sizzles in the sub-floor. Just as Anna and Will have been questioning the monogamous label of their partnership, Reece and Hale grapple with relationship-altering doubts of their own. Hale hopes for a child, a desire intensified by the behavior of Glenn (played keenly by an understated Jason Sudeikis), who frequents the nearby park with his infant son.
The web that traps the characters of Permission is sticky with an inquiry most avoid addressing: can you ever be certain you’re with the right person if they’re the only person you’ve been with? Though it’s certainly not anything riveting — we’ve seen the same plot skeleton in Hall Pass, The Freebie, and Sleeping with Other People — Permission is a film that explores non-monogamy and examines its core questions without an air of judgement. It paints an atmosphere of homeliness, a feeling that the lives we see have actually been lived in, and pings with bursts of comedy and sincerity.
However endearing Permission is, though, it isn’t without its faults. Hall and Stevens’ performances clash in small moments where they’re both committing too ardently to the stock characteristics of their roles (Hall overdoing Anna’s uptightness, Stevens leaning a bit too hard into Will’s ribald jokester attitude). Spots in the storyline are noticeably put-on, and helmer Crano is, at turns, clumsy and too on-the-nose with his direction. Viewers may find themselves a hell of a lot more emotionally attached to Hale, Reece, and Glenn than they are Anna and Will, since the heart of the narrative is spread disproportionately amongst the two parallel plots.
Permission then falls in the third act and cuts to black with a sharp conclusion. An open ending is fitting for an open relationship, but that the film didn’t entirely satisfy with its ambiguity is a turn-off. Even with their flaws, Anna and Will especially deserved to have their loose ends at least brought together in a bunch rather than left in the darkness with no hope of closure.
In all, the film delights in some aspects, disappoints in others, does a deft job of depicting the sloppy, senseless mess that adulthood and adult relationships inherently are, and reminds viewers that the only permission needed to attain unfeigned happiness is the kind you give to yourself.