It’s hard to decide which era “Permanent” is most nostalgic for: 1982, when writer-director Colette Burson’s semiautobiographical coming-of-ager is set, or the turn of the millennium, when movies like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Ghost World” set the template for the kind of twee, adolescent-angst stories that reached their apotheosis a few years later with Fox Searchlight releases “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” In either case, the movie does neither time period any real favors, being a funny-ish (but never outright funny) portrait of a high school girl whose biggest concern is her hair.
As such, the title “Permanent” refers to the chemical process (or “perm,” as the mainstream called it) made enviable by the likes of Meg Ryan, Stevie Nicks and Dolly Parton back when big hair and poodle-like ringlets were all the rage. It also describes the kind of damage that high school renders on teenagers everywhere, who carry the scars of schoolyard taunting and non-inclusion well into their forties — where they can presumably serve as fodder for comedies such as this.
Aurelie (newcomer Kira McLean, who shows potential beyond the vinegar-faced scowl she wears for most of her first starring feature role) spent most of her childhood on a military base, but now that her family has moved to Virginia, she’s worried that the rest of her class won’t accept her unless she has feathered hair like Farrah Fawcett. Maybe she’s right, but it’s hard to sympathize with a character whose concerns are so petty and self-absorbed. Aurelie’s hair obsession may trigger notes of recognition from others, but mostly, it makes one nostalgic for the time when the biggest problem we could think of was how we looked (a phase that many presumably never grow out of).
Desperate to fit in, Aurelie pesters her parents, dowdy middle-class couple Jeanne (Patricia Arquette) and Jim Dixon (Rainn Wilson in an unsightly toupee), until they agree to pay for a perm. Times being tight, however, they can’t afford the $40 it costs to get it done right, so they take her to the local beauty school instead, with predictably disastrous results.
That’s a perfectly funny story, and one can imagine Burson cracking up a room by telling it aloud, regaling friends with the detail of how her classmates teased her about her new “afro” on the bus, forcing her to sit beside the school’s one black student (Nena Daniels, easily the film’s most interesting character), but it’s tacky to see reenacted. Those were less enlightened times, and it sometimes takes decades for people to realize just how petty and insensitive they were as adolescents.
Even with the distance of a quarter-century, however, it’s not entirely clear that Burson’s perspective has shifted: “Permanent” still bears the traces of old grudges (like the way the other kids tease Aurelie for her arbitrarily French name by calling her “oral sex,” which must be some variation on what Burson went through for being named “Colette” in the South), and feels a little too tidy in the way everyone suddenly puts aside his or her differences in time for the final group hug.
Though reinforced by amusing period-specific details (mainly the kind of embarrassing sartorial choices designed to trigger feelings of shame and solidarity from others who survived the ’80s as well), the film makes an unfortunate gamble: While most of its humor derives from nostalgia for the era of pastel fashions, tube socks and karate self-defense classes, the movie seems geared toward audiences roughly the age of its own protagonist — a tactic that has worked well enough for “Stranger Things” and “It,” but suggests that many of the vintage details will be lost on teens, while the character’s relative immaturity will make “Permanent” taxing for those who want something more than talent-show contests and awkward first-kiss scenarios from their movies.
Apart from casting (which is just OK here, as Wilson resorts a bit too much to shtick, while Arquette reaches for sincerity), regionally- and period-specific details are the ingredient that make otherwise-interchangeable stories like this appealing. While “Permanent” doesn’t come anywhere near Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (or last year’s comparably charming “The Edge of Seventeen”) in revealing all that is specific and universal in the process by which a young woman comes into her own, it’s not without its charms; they just tend to be suffocated by bad wig jokes, distracting wardrobe choices and Craig Wedren’s invasively cutesy score. Burson (best known for co-creating the HBO series “Hung”) is still finding her voice, but it’s one with clear potential. Give it a decade, and she’ll look back on “Permanent” with the same cringe-inducing embarrassment she now feels toward the era it depicts, but by then, her storytelling may well have found the perspective this film so desperately lacks.