My Favorite Movies – Permanent Record (1988)

16 Jun

By Tanner Smith

“Permanent Record” is an underrated teen-related film from the ‘80s that deserves to be checked out. What’s it about? Teenage suicide…

Yeah, before this taboo subject was satirized in the black-comedy “Heathers” a year after this film’s release, it was centered on two serious teen films in the mid-1980s. One of them was a made-for-TV after-school special called “A Desperate Exit” (or “Face at the Edge of the World,” as it’s sometimes called), starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Rob Stone. Then, a couple years later, indie filmmaker Marisa Silver, along with a team of three writers, approached the subject with more thoughtfulness in “Permanent Record.”

The suicide aspect doesn’t arrive until midway through the film. Up until that point, we get a nice, accurate (sometimes disturbingly so) portrait of a model high-school student who just wants everything to be “perfect.” David (Alan Boyce) is a good boy. He’s a nice guy, gets good grades, is a talented musician, helps compose the music for the school production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” and has just received a good scholarship. To his best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves) and other students in his class (including two played by Jennifer Rubin and Michelle Meyrink), David has it made. But something is wrong here. David doesn’t feel like he can handle all his responsibilities and would rather not be depended on for once. The great thing about this first act, aside from first-rate acting & direction, is just how subtle David seems to be taking his crises as they worsen to him.

When you hear the word “suicide” associated with this film, it should come as no surprise that David does kill himself. At first, his friends think it was an accident that killed him. But then Chris receives a posthumous letter from David, saying nothing went the way he wanted, and that’s when things become clear. What isn’t fully clear to them is why he did it. David was the person they wanted to be and he took his own life when he couldn’t handle the pressure. Or was it for something else as well? And will they follow in his footsteps and do the same thing he did? Nothing is spelled out as to why David committed suicide, but it is hinted that when he expected perfection out of life, he felt he was doomed because it would or could lead to failure and despair. Ultimately, it’s up to the survivors to make the right choices and go on living.

There is much in “Permanent Record” that is cheesy and dated, and some of the dialogue is a little off (that, and sometimes Michelle Meyrink’s line readings are a bit stilted). But there is a lot however that does ring true and are executed very well.

Alan Boyce is very, very good as David, capturing the perfect “model student” to a T. He has such a natural charisma that I’m actually surprised he didn’t go anywhere after this. But as it turns out, he’s not the main focus. The main focus is on David’s best friend Chris, played by Keanu Reeves, who, between “River’s Edge” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” was a rising star. His performance in this film is one of his best, playing a confused kid who has to grow up and face reality when he would rather just kick back and party. A scene that shows Reeves’ remarkable ability is when Chris barely witnesses David’s end–Chris is drunk off his ass when slowly but surely realizes the horrible truth that his best friend is gone.

Another performance I want to single out is Jennifer Rubin (probably best known to horror movie buffs as a punk girl from the third “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie) as a shy girl who secretly loved David. Her scenes with Chris as she talks to him about the future she imagined with them and their friends are heartbreaking. The part that gets me the most could have been the most clichéd but I bought it with no problem—it’s a payoff to David’s “lost song” that he wrote before he died that serves as a memorial for him, during the play. There are other teenagers in this movie, including David’s “friend-with-benefits” who never saw their relationship as more than just sex (and therefore, she has no clear answer for why David committed suicide either) and a nerdy boy who tries to belong with the in-crowd which includes David and Chris and such (he ends up helping with the music for the school play). They get their moments to good effect.

Yeah, some of these actors look too old for their parts, which makes it kind of weird whenever Reeves (24 at the time) keeps asking for beer. But the film is well cast and performed.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the best character in the film. It’s not one of the teenagers; it’s actually the high-school principal, played by Richard Bradford. This is one of the best authority characters in any teen film I’ve seen. He’s understanding, he’s patient, and when he’s impatient or tough, we can understand why. How can we understand why? Because unlike most “teen films,” we do see scenes away from the teenagers that give the principal more character. Thanks to the attention given to him, this is quite possibly the most three-dimensional high-school-principal character I’ve ever seen in a teen-related film, and Richard Bradford does a good job playing him.

“Permanent Record” is well-directed with care by Marisa Silver. Silver’s debut film before this was 1984’s “Old Enough,” which was about two 13-year-old girls from opposite sides of the tracks who become friends for a summer. While I don’t think it’s as good as “Permanent Record,” it does show that this director did have a gift of empathy for her characters and the world they live in. (It’s easy to see why she went from film to literary arts.) That’s especially true of “Permanent Record.”

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