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'Permanent Record' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 23, 1988

At first glance David, the teen-age protagonist in "Permanent Record," would seem to have everything going his way. A gifted musician with chiseled features and intelligent, penetrating eyes, David is the sort of young man who seems on the very brink of a productive, fulfilling life. He's the epitome of youthful potential.

But the more you see of David (Alan Boyce), the more you realize there's something slightly off about him, something staticky and agitated, but at first you can't exactly put your finger on what it is.

Nor, at first, do you make much of it.

But after David wanders away from a party one night and, without a word of goodbye, throws himself off a cliff, every remembered look, every gesture, every word, spoken or unspoken, seems weighted with meaning. And, in the wake of his death, questions arise: Shouldn't someone have known? Couldn't something have been done?

These are the issues that the director, Marisa Silver, addresses here. And if good intentions and a serious subject were everything needed for a successful film, this would be a considerable piece of work.

But good intentions and seriousness aside, it's not much of anything -- not terrible, but not terribly engaging or illuminating either.

The film's chief virtue is that it doesn't lapse into hysteria on the subject of teen suicide. Nor is it a work of fashionable nihilism, like "River's Edge," in which the blitzed metal teens are used as symbols of a more pervasive cultural depravity. The whole point, in fact, is that these are not problem teen-agers. They're regular kids, with regular kid problems -- grades, college, peer approval, sex. When the easygoing Chris (Keanu Reeves) says to his girlfriend (Michelle Meyrink), "Stop pedaling so fast. Coast a while," she snaps back, "This no time to coast."

But coasting is Chris' specialty. Dressed in baggy shorts and unlaced combat boots, Chris bounces through life, without a care in the world or a thought in his head. With his shaggy bangs hanging in his eyes, he looks like a rumpled puppy, and Reeves gives him that particular brand of goony obliviousness that teen-age boys specialize in.

About halfway through the film, all this changes, and the movie becomes an examination of David's friends and their reactions to his death. Silver has a message and it is that our attitude toward this problem should be one of vigilance and concern.

But she also prompts us to question whether this would be enough. In one scene, the principal at David's school informs him of his admission the following year to a prestigious music school and, overwhelmed with schoolwork and various other projects, he freaks out, thinking he has to leave immediately.

In retrospect, perhaps his frenzied reaction should have set off warning signals. Then again, perhaps not. To Silver's credit, she doesn't imply that if the people around David had simply paid attention, they could have saved him. She doesn't feed us easy answers, and she doesn't point fingers either. Instead, she and screenwriters Jarre Fees, Alice Liddle and Larry Ketron let us see how difficult it is to determine the difference between the customary traumas of growing up and the deeper disturbances that lead to more drastic measures.

But still, the film is too slight, too much like an after-school special, to make much of an impression. Somehow, in leaving out the hysteria, Silver has left out the emotion. Or else she's simply not accomplished enough to capture the fullness of the tragedy in this situation without cheapening it. As a result, the film seems featureless and tepid. We register the boy's death, but we never feel it.

"Permanent Record" contains some drug and alcohol use and profanity.

Copyright The Washington Post

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