You can tell a lot about a man by looking at his wood. No, that’s not the punchline–take Will (Dan Stevens), half of the steadfastly-in-love couple whose experiments with dating other people give Permission its title. He has the very Brooklyn job of running an artisanal furniture shop that deals mostly in solid wood tables and other sturdy home furnishings. His work, as one potential romantic interest points out, is very honest–he puts himself out there, no artifice.
Brian Crano’s Permission takes this ethos to heart, as a charming and occasionally devastating romantic drama with a clear-eyed premise: How can you know if someone is the best person for you if you’ve never been with anyone else? This is the question that plagues Anna (Rebecca Hall) on the cusp of her 30th birthday and (though she doesn’t know this part) a marriage proposal from Will. Though she probably does know–after all, he’s fixing up a house in Park Slope just for them, the kind of commitment that makes you assume that a diamond might be hanging from the keyring.
And therein lies the problem: Sweethearts since their teens, they latched on to one another early and never wanted anyone else. As Will jokes, “I ruined things for you.” Their situation is rare for stories of young love, and rarer still for their own generation, as more people move away from home and date around before settling down. Prompted by this insecurity, not to mention the tantalizing itch of curiosity, Rebecca proposes something else entirely: They each sleep with other people, just as a control check against their own commitment, just to see what it’s like.
It’s an increasingly common premise, seen in broad comedies like Hall Pass or nuanced indies like Katie Aselton’s The Freebie, but what puts Permission at the top of this growing romantic subgenre is how Anna and Will’s relationship feels so authentically lived-in. They have their favorite neighborhood walks, their preferred sex positions, their fall-asleep TV shows, their inside jokes to defuse tension. Surely some sexual interlopers can’t pierce the bubble around them?
If anything, the people who are more worried about the fortitude of Will and Anna’s relationship are her brother Hale (David Joseph Craig) and his boyfriend Reece (Morgan Spector). Reece is the one who sets the plan into motion, albeit unintentionally after too much champagne, but both fear that by introducing the notion of what if there’s something better they’ve doomed this relationship. But Anna and Will shrug off their worries; after all, they’re communicating about every step of this risky experiment, which is a far cry from the romantic-comedy standard of mixed signals, so they should be able to keep things in check.
But all that honesty pales in comparison to the other truths: that it’s almost too easy to act like just good friends when they wingman for each other out on the town; that part of acting single is the spontaneity of a kiss or sex, which doesn’t really make time for covertly getting permission with your significant other; that there are some personal discoveries they need to make on their own.
Anna’s individual journey is the heart of the story, as she is yet again successful on her first try: She clicks with Dane (Francois Arnaud), a musician and composer, both artistically and sexually. While she and Will grew and matured together for a decade, Dane could be a better fit for the person she is now.
Will isn’t so lucky in his explorations; Stevens gets the short end of the stick, saddled with the broader comedy in the form of Will’s fling with wealthy divorcée Lydia (Gina Gershon). Don’t get me wrong, Gershon is smokin’, and this could have been an opportunity for her to unlock some of Will’s obvious repression. Instead, the two trip on drugs in her lush apartment yet for all their existential mental wanderings never really make any real exploration into his sexual shortcomings.
Permission is more heartfelt with its dramatic elements than funny with the comedic ones, though there are small moments of the kind of warm humor that comes from a deep knowledge of one another. A few scenes end a beat too soon, not allowing the punchlines or one-liners the necessary moments to properly land.
Craig and Spector–who, ironically, are the respective husbands of Crano and Hall–have an easy chemistry as Hale and Reece. Their dynamic is also well-worn, imbued with affection, mutual respect, and nights at their favorite wine bar. But just as Anna wrestles with monogamy, Hale finds himself tempted toward something that could just as easily wreck his relationship: a baby.
At one point during which Hale is pooh-poohing the open relationship, Anna challenges him (paraphrased), “Well, wouldn’t you stay with Reece forever?” “No,” he responds easily, “I would stay as long as we were happy.” Yes, Permission is about trusting your partner enough to let them be with other people yet return to you. But it’s also about giving yourself permission to take the steps you need to be happy, whatever that requires.
Permission premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. No word yet on when it will come to theaters.