David, a high school senior, is a perfect kid, at least in the eyes of parents, peers, teachers, school principal; he is set for college next year, is musically gifted, and his prospects for his band are looking up. Everyone delights in his presence except Kim (Pamela Gidley, marvelous), to whom he doesn’t talk although they are lovers. In reality, David is bottled up, poised to implode from all the pressure that is routinely placed on him by those full of expectations for him. Most adolescents have to cope with failure; how does one cope with success? What is it like always to be presumed invincible and on top of things, with no one reaching out to calm your confusions, with fear of disappointing others your invisible companion?
David commits suicide; a “terrible accident” is the presumption, a fall from a cliff. Only, unbeknownst to David, best friend Chris (Keanu Reeves, playing scenes rather than giving a performance) is right behind him; he hears David’s silence during the fall. Chris receives in the mail a note from the deceased: “I wanted everything to be perfect; only, it wasn’t.”
Writer-director Marisa Silver’s Permanent Record, which was shot in Portland and Newport, Oregon, is less about David than about the fallout from his death, especially when it is learned that this was a suicide. Silver inserts no flashbacks; when David is gone, he is gone—a haunting absence. We recall how hard he was on carefree Chris to pull himself together and realize his own musical gifts. David seemed laidback with everyone else, but not with Chris. We know how perceptive Silver’s film is when we realize that David was “acting out” on Chris all the pressures that David felt were targeting him. Chris ends up putting words to a melody that David had composed. The song, gorgeous and heartrending, is “Wishing on Another Lucky Star,” actually by J. D. Souther: “The world grows cold,/ The heart gets torn and tattered. . . .”
A fence is put up so no one else will “fall” where David did. The film ends with David’s friends congregated there and the camera in pan-mode. The irony is devastating; the fence, a farce for all the good it can do. These kids will never get over their loss, which will factor into the course of their lives.
As with her Old Enough (1984), Silver is gentle and powerful; she embraces her young characters and lets them go. She also draws from Alan Boyce a brilliant performance as David. It really is an impossible role. Boyce must not expose David’s hidden torment too blatantly, for then we would ask why nobody else saw it, and he mustn’t hide it so much that his suicide seems a narrative trick. Boyce strikes the best possible balance, and invests the boy, besides, with a poignant aura.
Permanent Record isn’t quite as amazingly fresh as Old Enough. There is some lugubriousness. And, while the kids are wonderful, Kathy Baker is a cipher as David’s mother.