Movie Review: Bad Hair is a REALLY Big Deal in 1980s Rural Va. in “Permanent”

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Warm in all the most predictable ways, edgy and surprising at times, and always willfully quirky, “Permanent” is an old-fashioned coming-of-age-in-the-hell-of-high-school comedy with a few new twists.

It’s about bad hair in a place (suburban Richmond, Va., THE SOUTH) and time (the early 1980s) when that could be a social death sentence for a white American teenage girl.

That’s Aurelie Dixon’s plight. Kira McLean brings gawky, wimpy Aurelie to life in a breakout performance that will feel oh-so-lived-through for generations of female filmgoers.

The Dixons are new to town, freshly arrived from Washington, D.C. But that’s not going to stand her in good stead at her new high school, even though she could play “the big city sophisticate” card, even though her dad (Rainn Wilson) served three U.S. presidents, and has the autographed photos to prove it.

Dad is retired from the Air Force, but was a steward during his entire enlistment. He was a glorified waiter to presidents, diplomats and potentates. All he has to show for it is a toupee, and a scholarship to a small Christian college where he can begin his pre-med studies, starting over in his 40s.

Aurelie needs something to cling to, some sort of signature, heading into the school year.

“I’m ugly and I feel bad about myself!”

It’s not going to be her odd, ridiculous and taunt-worthy name — “ORALLY?”

She can’t change that.

And it’s not going to be fashion, partly because it’s 1982 (ick), partly because she has no fashion sense and mostly because, as her mother reminds her — CONSTANTLY — “We’re poor. Working poor!”

But long-suffering, fried chicken joint waitress and family breadwinner mom (Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, in top form) hears that “all the OTHER girls look like Farrah Fawcett” complaint once too often and finds a low-cost answer to Aurelie’s request — a small-town “beauty school” run by, well, the only gay in the village.

Before you can say, “My GOD, what have you done?” the drawling klutz who does the deed hollers, “Come check out this permanent I just done did!” And Aurelie’s woes are just beginning.

Writer-director Colette Burson of TV’s “Hung” must know whereof she speaks, because what follows is a spot-on spoof of the upper South fifteen years removed from The Civil Rights Movement, on the cusp of MTV.

Overt racial name-calling has subsided, but the only black girl in this school (amusingly sullen newcomer Nena Daniels) is “stuck in with the RE-tards” by teachers uninterested in her intelligence, and yet not so ostracized that she can’t reject the new kid’s “I’ll be your FRIEND” pleas. Lydia lives every school day in barely-contained rage.

The girls are all bullies, the boys freshman vulgarians.

And at home, Aurelie’s mom is out of patience with her bald-and-fooling-no-one husband, whose sex drive ended with his Air Force career, a dork (as only Rainn Wilson can play him) with an indulgent side he shows their daughter and an ineptly self-important one he shows everybody else.

There’s temptation outside the marriage, small-town imitations of Big City “group counseling,” competent but not top-flight teachers with stock answers/ WRONG solutions to every social woe in the school and the hint of ways Aurelie and Lydia might stand out from this mob. If only they can learn to stick up for themselves.

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The ending is entirely too pat, considering what’s come before. But Burson has channeled her dark memories of freshman year into something that occasionally touches and often tickles, but stings with familiarity, start to finish.

Yes, a bad perm will “relax” and eventually go away. And once the trauma has worn off, someday you’ll look back on it and laugh. Just give it 20-35 years or so.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for crude sexual references, language and thematic elements

Cast:  Kira McLean, Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Nena Daniels

Credits:Written and directed by Colette Burson. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:33

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