If you go
What: "Permanent," written and directed by Colette Burson
When: Dec. 27-30
Where: Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder
Cost: Tickets start at $12
More info: thedairy.org
"Permanent" doesn't bear the obvious creative signs of a personal revolution.
Set in 1982, the film stars Kira McLean as Aurelie Dickson, a 13-year-old transplant to a small Virginia town who endures the fallout of a failed hairdo in the face of her middle-school peers who, as the saying predicts, can be unthinkably cruel. Along with her parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Rainn Wilson, she works to establish a new sense of home and permanence in an environment that can feel hostile and unforgiving.
The movie, which runs at the Boedecker Theater in the Dairy Arts Center from Dec. 27-30, has all the marks of a meditative, coming-of-age tale, a story that relies on subtle character study for its impact. For writer and director Colette Burson, however, the story of a young woman dealing with the impact of a failed perm has a much more dramatic import.
"I really wrote it as a creative rebellion," said Burson, whose resume includes credits as the co-creator and producer of the HBO series "Hung." "I'd been a professional writer in Hollywood for some time. There's a certain kind of slog you can get in, thinking of how your work will be perceived commercially. I wrote 'Permanent' from a completely different energy source ... The genesis was realizing at a certain moment in time, both father and I were obsessed with our hair."
Specifically, Burson seized on a moment from her own adolescence as a transplant to a small Southern town, an impactful incident that saw her falling short of finding that all-important feeling of fitting in. Burson reported to a salon for a permanent, a hairdo that she hoped would summon comparisons to Farah Fawcett, Stevie Nicks and all of the other paragons of early '80s fashion.
What she received instead was a stylistic mistake born of a bum timer, an overdone, overfried afro that made her the laughing stock of her school.
"When I got a perm, a mistake was made, it turned out really frizzy and really big. It's happened to a lot of women. Mine came out really looking bad," Burson recalled, adding that the incident served as the springboard to writing "Permanent." "I wrote the scenes that seemed funny ... I didn't worry about outlines or explanations. I wrote what felt true to me. I think there's a lot of truth in this film."
Drawing on that single fashion nightmare from her adolescence offered Burson an opportunity to hit on multiple themes in this comedy. When the character Aurelie undergoes her own aesthetic tragedy, she runs into issues of race and culture in the small-town South of the early '80s — her schoolmates deridingly claim that her hair looks like an afro, and she forges a friendship with the lone black girl in the school.
In summoning the experience Burson mines themes of family and creates a strong sense of time and place. The film breathes with the ambience and mood of the South in the early years of the Reagan Era. It savors the details of Southern dialect and fashion, the pink, pleated shorts that Arquette's character wears, the games of backyard badminton and the dialectical pace and rhythm of the residents of the featured small town.
"I feel like 'Permanent' is comedic, but at the same time, it's really rooted in truth. I feel like many audiences that didn't grow up in the South have a harder time understanding. They're interested in the 'Joe Dirt' version, or the 'Beast of the Southern Wild' version," Burson said, adding that the view of "Permanent" derives from her own experience as an adolescent import to the region. "This family, they are very much outsiders. They're outsiders by inclination and geography and literally being new to town. I moved to the South when I was 10, and I can relate to that."
She can also relate immediately to the trappings of the era, an age immediately before the advent of the internet and a new sense of global connection. The phones are rotary, the mail is paper and the music is analogue. The film's setting in time lends it a sense of isolation, a distinct feeling of small-town detachment that's no longer possible in the age of instant connections.
Still, Burson says that "Permanent" boasts a central theme that's timeless and universal, a focus on a family struggling simply to stay united and fit in.
"I realized that the concept of family resides very deeply within all of us, whether we come from peaceful or troubled ones," Burson said. "There's a longing to see a family thrive ... It's something very primal."
That desire runs deep, Burson added, even deeper than the fallout from a terrible hairdo.