Grab a stopwatch. Brian Crano’s “Permission” ticks off with a 25-second sex scene where longtime couple Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) start, finish, and look for the remote. After a decade together, even their whippet looks bored. Yet, the Manhattan couple is in love — truly and deeply, if not madly — and tonight, on Anna’s 30th birthday, Will intends to propose. Until Will’s carpentry partner Reece (Morgan Spector), who also dates Anna’s brother Hale (David Joseph Craig), reminds the two that when they were losing their virginity to each other, he was shagging two congressmen at once. When the over-confident pair eggs each other on to have an affair, all four lovers realize their contentment is masking a rumbling hunger for more. “Permission” is a small story made with big performances from leads Stevens and Hall, and while it hasn’t gotten the promotional push for audiences to pay attention, people lucky enough to stumble across it will fall for everyone involved, and commit to keeping tabs on Crano’s career.
The key to “Permission” is that every character is nice. The script is built on a baseline of trust and respect. No one is a villain, even when the experiment gets wobbly and an unbalanced Anna and Will hook up with random characters for reasons more muddy than physical bliss. Crano has an ear for the details, the way Anna always pushes Will to do what she secretly craves, while acting innocent about her desires. He hears the compliments that aren’t compliments — gushes Reece, “The two of you are so perfect and constant and boring” — and the quick pause someone makes before they lie to themselves.
Yet, Crano hasn’t made another low-ambition mumblecore movie where people stare at each other without saying what they mean. He sets the action in a heightened Manhattan with rich jewel-tone lighting where background actors are forever underscoring the drama. The emotions are real, but the film adds flourishes. When Will and Anna outline the boundaries of freedom, a waiter shatters a tray of glasses. Later, when a night goes wrong, Will walks home past a burning car.
These sound like romantic comedy gags, but they play out closer to a strange surrealism that realizes it has to rush through the details in order to drill down to what’s true. Crano takes his time watching the couple get ready for their first singles bar hunting expedition, zooming in on their faces as they share a slow dance before upending their status quo. Then as soon as the couple enters the club, Anna is beset by two suitors in 10 seconds, including one who’s a gold album-selling musician (François Arnaud) with six-pack abs and a flair for making pancakes. Meanwhile, Will is pursued by a wealthy divorcée (Gina Gershon, enriching her typical sexpot role with goofy neuroticism) who wraps him in fur coats as they eat Chinese take-out in a candle-lit bathtub.
It’s an absurd image that borrows from a generation of romantic comedies, and Stevens amps up the humor by giving Will a dorky little smirk. He looks like a handsome leading man, but Stevens shows us he’s really just a stunted kid. And as Reece and Hale settle into their sides of a tricky argument and shift from quirky instigators to the stars of their own calamitous subplot, they’re steered into meeting a third wheel of their own, played by Jason Sudeikis with the casual remove of a bystander who has no idea he’s walking through so much heightened turmoil.
Still, when you look at the blush on Hall’s face, you forget this world isn’t real. Along with “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” this makes two films in a short span where she’s played a settled-down dame opening up her relationship to potential ruin. If this is her new niche, she thrives in it, her face radiating joy while, behind the eyes, her brain is crunching the numbers: how do her options compare?
Hate her for a second and “Permission” would fall apart — it’s hard to think of another actress who could pull off the role with such charming, slightly selfish practicality. Previously, she’s specialized in women who kept themselves buttoned-up, and here she convincingly ties Anna’s curiosity for other men into her curiously to explore herself. Who would she be if she hadn’t fallen in love with a wonderful man when she was 18? After a one-night stand, she struts confidently back to Will and throws her bedmate’s phone number in a trash can. The music stops. Do we want it to start again?