Permanent Record (1988)

29 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The term “teen movie” could easily be described as a comedy or drama about teenagers and just that. But only the bad “teen movies” are just that. But the best of this genre (I guess “teen movie” could be considered a genre) features more intelligence than expected—movies like “Tex” and “Lucas,” among others. Here is another movie to add to that list. It’s called “Permanent Record” and it’s about an event that a group of teenagers must cope with. It’s a movie so good that it’s unfair to even put it in a list with other “teen movies.” (OK, I’ll stop with the quotation marks.)

The first shot of the movie rings true. It’s a shot of a group of teenage friends who hang out together with their cars on top of a high bluff overlooking the sea. They have their own conversations and we see that they’re good friends. The camera pans all throughout the friends as they talk and mess around with each other. This shot isn’t forced and there doesn’t seem to be any acting (but we know these kids are played by actors).

One of these characters catches our eye as the first half of the movie unfolds with not necessarily a plotline. This character is a high school student named David (Alan Boyce), a model student. He gets good grades, is a nice guy, is a talented guitar player, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a scholarship from a great music school. He has about everything going for him. But something is wrong. He feels that he is too busy for the scholarship, but the principal reminds him that it’s not for another two years. He is also a bit impatient when teaching his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) to play guitar. Chris can be good at it, but he doesn’t focus enough and that almost makes David mad.

This first half is great because it shows that David, Chris, and their friends are teenagers who are bright and thoughtful. They are not like most teenagers you see in other movies. And their high school days are not routine. They’re well-written and insightful. The way David’s crisis gets worse is so subtle. We don’t need dialogue to see what’s really going on in this kid’s life. And it really hits us hard when the second half occurs right after Chris sees David on top of that high bluff from the opening shot, then he looks again and he’s gone.

Many of David’s friends believe that David’s death was an accident. But soon, Chris receives a letter from David before he died—a suicide note that explained that David wanted everything to be perfect and it wasn’t. Chris is convinced that David has indeed committed suicide and tells everyone because they deserve to know. But knowing that this model student committed suicide is even worse than trying to deal with his death. Nobody knows how to feel anymore and the rest of the movie is about Chris and David’s other friends as they express rage, cry over his death, and feel sorrow. Was there anything they could’ve done to stop him from killing himself? “Permanent Record” features the kind of realism and emotion expressed by realistic teenagers over a friend’s death that I looked for and missed in the ‘80s after-school special “A Desperate Exit,” which featured Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. The way these teenagers express their emotions feels authentic and real. Credit director Marisa Silver and her writers Jarre Fees, Alice Liddle and Larry Ketron for creating a story with such subtle realism.

The performances of the teenaged characters are spot on, especially by Alan Boyce as David, Keanu Reeves as Chris, Michelle Meyrink (“Real Genius”) as their friend MG, and Jennifer Rubin as David’s girlfriend Lauren. And another intriguing character is their school principal, played by Richard Bradford. He shows very little, but we somehow know he is a good man who is unlike the mean-spirited high school principals in other movies. Also, the parents are given something in particular to do. They are not entirely absent here. They show up when the time is right.

Everything leads to the heartwarming final scene, in which “The Pirates of Penzance” goes on without David to arrange the music. But David is remembered in a way I will not describe. It’s such a great scene. And because of that scene, there is a sense that life will go on for these kids. But they will also realize that life isn’t perfect. Life is problems, but they have to deal with it in the way that David couldn’t. That message is emphasized at just the right note. It didn’t need to carry out even further. If it had, it would’ve cost the movie its subtlety.

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