***/**** Image C- Sound C+
starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Rubin, Alan Boyce, Pamela Gidley
screenplay by Jarre Fees and Alice Liddle and Larry Ketron
directed by Marisa Silver
by Walter Chaw Before Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure trapped Keanu Reeves in an amber of his own inexplicable sun-baked imbecility, he appeared in a couple of genuinely good films, nursing the mistaken impression that he was actually acting. One of these pictures is Tim Hunter's elegy to ennui River's Edge; the other is Marisa Silver's curiously affecting teenage-suicide melodrama Permanent Record. In both, Reeves demonstrates a now-unsurprising affinity for the soulful burnout character, a moral compass in the morass of the amorality of Eighties introspection and hedonism. A neo-hippie destined to become Neo for real, Reeves brought to his early work a kind of befuddled earnestness that informs his best performances (in My Own Private Idaho for instance, or even the first Matrix)--a quality causing genuine concern for "Hellblazer" fans, who probably deserve a more complex Constantine. Prior to mega-stardom, however, the most enduring image of Reeves is a scummy sleeping bag tryst in River's Edge, and his awkward take on drunkenness via Ray Bolger during the climax of Permanent Record.
Having, in his own words, too much fun, Reeves's mop-topped high-school senior Chris plays bad guitar in a bad band with his best friend, David (Alan Boyce), a type-A overachiever who succumbs to the pressures of pretending to like Gilbert & Sullivan, getting accepted into a great school, having a hot wooden girlfriend (Pamela Gidley), and being sainted by every acquaintance. David's suicide leaves his circle of friends to pick up the pieces, to coin a phrase, and the thing that salvages Permanent Record is that it knocks off the terminally mopey David about forty minutes in (a good thing, because I would've killed the movie at forty-five), transforming what was shaping up to be a classic of hormone depression theatre into a frank character piece that captures the embarrassing keen of the bright lights of teen life.
While it's easy to poke holes in the adolescent experience from a position of jealous middle-age, it's intoxicating to think that the nearness of emotions and the amped-up drama simmering beneath the surface of a world not yet unable to surprise and disappoint comprise a more vital, essential way of living. Looking back at high school, I recognize it as an essentially unhappy time, and still I miss it--the more you know, the less awful it all seems, and Permanent Record somehow balances the silliness of being seventeen with the beauty and the horror of it. Credit is owed in large part to Reeves's unaffected confusion at the way the world works--and to the naked greed with which he holds onto the gestures that might make sense of it all, even for a second. I saw a lot of the same kind of silly/poignant ritualistic acting-out after Columbine, marking the emotions at play in Permanent Record as ageless despite its Rick Springfield hair.
Paramount releases Permanent Record in a barely-registering DVD that distinguishes itself from the old VHS I have only by its aspect ratio (1.85:1), the anamorphic transfer riddled with particulate debris that makes every shot look a lot like it was taken from inside a honky-tonk. Black level is more brown than black, while there's nothing like shadow detail and flesh tones appear sallow. The film deserves better, but Paramount has something of a track record in mishandling its 'B' catalogue. A Dolby Digital 2.0 surround rendering of the "Ultra Stereo" mix is clear but also mostly indistinguishable from a mono presentation. Again like my tape, there are no special features, not even a trailer. Originally published: May 5, 2004.