Permanent is a 2017 comedy about bad hair, adolescence, and socially awkward family members involving life-altering permanents and poorly-made toupees.
Surprisingly, there have been an almost absurd number of movies about hair. Really. A lot, from Hairspray to You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and perhaps not surprisingly, they’ve mostly all been comedies. Now comes Colette Burson‘s Permanent, a quirky bit of offbeat that uses bad hair to broach a number of delicate issues in this often amusing if not entirely successfully family comedy.
Set in the early 1980s, when Farrah Fawcett hair and Charlie’s Angels rule the day, middle schooler Aurelie (Kira McLean) has moved to a new school in Virginia, her parents Jim (Rainn Wilson) and Jeanne (Patricia Arquette) struggling to be suburbanites and help their daughter fit in. Wanting to be popular, she asks to get a permanent, but as her folks don’t have a lot of money and think she’s already ‘cute’, take her to a beauty school and let a student apply the style. Naturally, it’s anything but what Aurelie (pronounced ‘orally’ – another avenue kid’s grab on to to poke fun) had hoped for, becoming a wildly curly, spiky, stringy, mound of madness that accomplishes one thing; she gets noticed. Becoming a target, the entire school seemingly marking her, she learns that it will take $60 to fix it, so sets about finding a way to make the money and hopefully change everything. You can bet there’s much to learn along the way.
As with any film orbiting around an adolescent, it is the adults that are the most left of center, wildly eccentric and generally unavailable or distracted to truly recognize the plight of the child. Jim used to be in the Air Force, serving as a steward on Air Force One, proud of his collection of presidential memorabilia and signatures. He also wears an expensive toupee. Jeanne is an uptight, sexually repressed mom wholly unhappy with her lot in life, having a great deal of trouble dealing with their downsizing. They bicker and banter constantly in front of Aurelie, their outlooks and motivations on the far ends of opposite. They both support their daughter and she is hardly distant from them, however she’s just not sure how she fits in within it all.
The best parts of Permanent are when the three are together, the dynamic of this imploding family the funniest and most affecting, with Burson’s script sharp and often very witty. She clearly understands the dilemma a young girl can have with bad hair and wields it with some weight, pitting Aurelie up against some real nasties who unleash a steady volley of insults whenever she’s around. What Burson does though is reveal that much of this is superficial, with kids simply falling in line, with one of the most aggressive boys secretly finding himself attracted to her. Aurelie befriends Lydia (Nena Daniels), the only black child in the school, who wears her hair tight and braided and is stuck in remedial classes because well, that’s where they put her. It’s distressing. Lydia is of course, the most grounded and authentic student in the school, and both pushes and inspires Aurelie to grow, ending up having the film’s best moment late in the story, one that redefines the movie’s entire plot.
Overall, the movie is a scattered collection of quirky and sometimes touching moments that begins as one thing and ends as another. Hair is the catalyst for all the happens, the motivator behind all that Aurelie muddles through. The movie sticks to a tried and true formula of the underdog with a big competition at the end where all their fates hinge. The message is a little unbalanced, but clear enough by the time it finds it end, and all wrapped up nicely as expected. It’s not quite weighty enough to punch as hard as it tries, but sure is fun.
Movie description: Permanent is a 2017 comedy about bad hair, adolescence, and socially awkward family members involving life-altering permanents and poorly-made toupees.
Director(s): Colette Burson
Actor(s): Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Kira McLean