The first scene of Brian Crano’s feature film Permission is a sex scenejust don’t expect it to be particularly sexy.
Stars Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens play Anna and Will, a couple who have been together for years and have settled into a sexual routine that we’d be overpraising by describing it as perfunctory. Buried in sheets, the couple’s lackluster go at it is punctuated by a line many of us have surely (if regrettably) come to expect from our live-in partners: “Pass me a towel. I don’t want to get any on the sheets.”
With that kind of sex life (as it happens, neither had been with anyone else when they started dating), it’s no surprise that talk of opening themselves to the possibility of sleeping with other people titillates and terrifies them in equal measure. The idea comes courtesy of their friend Reece (played by Hall’s husband, Morgan Spector) who drunkenly asks Anna if she’s never been curious to find out “what another cock feels like.”
You can almost see his partner and Anna’s brother Hale (played by Crano’s real life husband, David Joseph Craig) wanting to drown him right then and there. Not that their own relationship is pitch perfect; while their sex life is nothing short of fulfilling, Hale is seriously thinking of adopting, an idea Reece has little interest in entertaining.
As we follow both couples wrestling with these sexual and domestic challenges, Crano crafts one of the most candid portrayals of what it means to be one half of a couple. He tells INTO he began toying with the idea for the film when he start to see so many partnered friends around him.
“I was in a relationship with David, whom I ended up marrying,” Crano says. “And all of my friends were in relationships.” But, given their own experiences, he was wary of what it all meant. “We’re all kind of godless children of divorce. And we’re all looking at these partners who we’re with and who we love, and also aware at some level that, statistically, this relationship is doomed to failor, end if not fail.”
At the same time, Crano says he realized he was ever more curious both about his own wants and desires as his partner’s. That forced him to explore how that curiosity needles its way into the constructed intimacies that make up a couple’s everyday life.
Permission follows Anna and Will as each become involved sexually with other people (she with a gorgeous, free-spirit of a musician played by the lithe French-Canadian actor Francois Arnaud; he with a wealthy older woman looking for some fun played by Gina Gershon), Crano inserts some adventurous moments where, emboldened by newfound courage, they test out their desires and unabashedly indulge those of the others, including a moment when, mid-coitus, Matthew Crawley spits in Gina Gershon’s mouth.
“It’s not that much different from kissing, really,” Crano quips. The scene accurately captures Will’s grappling with a presumed shameful desire he’s harbored but hadn’t yet articulated. The spit itself is prefaced by his voicing his wanting.
If Permission’s premise sounds both quotidian and revelatory, it’s because it is. Unassuming in its ambition, the film aspires to present a string of characters who stumble their way into being more honest about who they are and what they wanteven, or especially, if it means leaving the person they thought would be the one.
Throughout the film Will, Anna, Hale, and Reece have to admit that their wants are different from the ones that have been prescribed to themby society, by friends, by family, and often by no one other than themselves. Admitting that you want something that your partner may not know about you needn’t be complicated yet, as Crano points out, having those sorts of conversations can sometimes feel hard because “our culture is so crippled by shame.”
“There’s a real sense of ingrained sexual shame that we’re taught,” he says, “and I think it’s very difficult to negotiate what you want sexually out loud without feeling silly.”
Permission hinges on awkward conversations between loved ones that force you to take stock of the many unquestioned assumptions, sexual and otherwise, that come to structure long-term relationships. Seeing Anna and Will navigate what it means to sleep with other people, parsing out the rules they’ve made for themselves (even as they routinely break them), and trying their best to let it not affect the loving dynamic they’d long established with each other, is painful to watch. They each have great sex with other people but, as Anna points out early in the film, they’re not opening up the relationship.
So what happens when the precarious equilibrium they’d built together is challenged by not just novelty but possibility?
That’s the question Permission also addresses when it comes to its gay couple, offering in the process a story we seldom get to see on the big screen.
“As a gay man I’m interested in showing gay relationships in all their normality,” Crano says. “I was interested in telling a gay story that wasn’t about coming out or being ashamed of being gay, which very few films, however beautiful, do.”
Hale and Reece deal with a different kind of shame. On the one hand, Hale all but blushes whenever he tries to vocalize how much he wants a kid, a fatherly instinct that you can see light his face up whenever he gets to hold a baby. On the other, Reece is embarrassed to admit that he may not want to change the life they have for what seems like an ill-advised desire to bring a child into their home.
For Crano, showing these otherwise mundane conversations about what it means to be in a committed long term relationship between two well-adjusted gay men felt novel.
“I feel like gay audiences are probably ready to see stories about their normal lives,” he says. “Often when we’d be shooting the scenes with the boys, I would lean back and think, ‘I’ve never seen that before in a movie!’ I’m 34 and I’ve watched a lot of movies with gay characters, and I’ve never seen that.’”
Crano says he hopes Permission will leave audiences feeling a little bit uncomfortable, like the guy at its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, who grabbed him at the theater and whispered hurriedly in his ear, “Thanks a lot, buddy. Now I have to have an awkward conversation with my wife!”
To which Crano beamed and responded, “Cool! That’s the idea.”
Permissionopens in select theaters tomorrow.