The latest entrant in an emerging subgenre of character-driven comedies about neurotic young New Yorkers (epitomized by the success of HBO’s “Girls”), Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior” provides an enjoyably shrewd update to a potentially grating formula. The first-timer writes, directs and stars this blatantly autobiographical tale of a bisexual Brooklynite still in the closet to her strict Persian parents. That lingering dilemma forms only one piece of the equation in this sophisticated and persistently witty look at urban youth culture and arrested development. While hardly groundbreaking, Akhavan’s blend of cultural insights and sweetly relatable, self-deprecating humor provide a charming showcase for a new filmmaker worthy of discovery.
Akhavan’s onscreen alter ego is Shirin, a twentysomething Brooklynite suffering the fallout from her relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), whom she’s seen abandoning in the movie’s first scene. Taking little more than a dildo when she leaves, Shirin is immediately established as a frantic young woman at the end of her rope, but Akhavan takes some time to show how she got there. Shifting back and short between her initial courtship with Maxine years earlier and her desperate attempts to win her back after the breakup, “Appropriate Behavior” initially seems to burrow inside the conventions of a romcom, but instead expands to explore much broader issues involving its main character’s particular set of identity crises: While her confident brother boasts of a career in medicine, Shirin drifts from one odd job to the next, wasting a degree in journalism and lying to her conservative-minded parents (Hooman Maid and Anh Duong) about her various hardships (not to mention her sexuality).
Naturally, Shirin’s hangups weigh down on her relationship with Maxine, who berates her partner in flashbacks. But Shirin dodges the inevitable parental confrontation just like everything else: The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach informs virtually every facet of her life.
While her parents are only glimpsed in a handful of scenes and remain fairly underdeveloped — though Duong, as Shirin’s pestering mother, delivers a few compellingly tough parenting moments — the rest of Shirin’s world has a wholly developed feel. Alternating between chic Park Slope happenings and the buttoned-up, traditionalist gatherings of her Iranian relatives, Shirin finds herself literally caught between two separate realities. With its non-linear structure and zany dialogue, Akhavan’s script initially has a rough feel that makes its establishment of the central drama a touch too obvious. But even as “Appropriate Behavior” takes its time to make its situation palatable, eventually it settles into an agreeable rhythm that reflects Shirin’s offbeat lifestyle.
Despite its protagonist’s rapid-fire cynicism, the movie is never consumed by pessimism. As it stretches back to Shirin’s initial courtship with Maxine, Akhavan smartly reinforces the nature of their bond: The older, confident Maxine escapes the anxieties of growing older through Shirin’s blind idealism, while Shirin identifies Maxine’s ire as a form of fashionable snark that the younger woman admires. During their initial flirtation, Shirin gushes, “I hate so many things, too!” The exchange initially reads as heartwarming but in retrospect also points to their eventual discord.
Yet rather than hovering in the disarray of their dissolved partnership, “Appropriate Behavior” compliments it with a welcome comedic sensibility. When Shirin takes on a random daycare gig, she suddenly finds herself in charge of drooling kindergarteners and faced with the impossible task of teaching them how to make a movie. Hilarity ensues as Shirin works with the unfocused group to develop an amusingly sophomoric short film that, in its own childish way, expresses her pathetic state. (Scott Adsit, aka Pete from “30 Rock,” surfaces in a minor but quite funny role as Shirin’s stoner boss.) If the plot solely revolved around this scholastic task, there’s no doubting “Appropriate Behavior” would slide into the seriously underwhelming territory of a one-note coming-of-age comedy; fortunately, Shirin’s job merely compliments the far more advanced issues she faces elsewhere.
It’s to the credit of this lightweight story that Akhavan doesn’t force it toward a showy resolution, instead using the rejigged order to emphasize the texture of Shirin’s uneven ride. Not every one-liner lands smoothly, but her overarching desperation resonates. Hardly a showy filmmaker, she’s nevertheless a confident one, ensuring the naturalistic performances elevate developments that could easily devolve into farce. From a cold sex scene between Shirin and a blind date, the filmmaker cuts to Shirin and her ex-girlfriend during a tender moment smoking pot together in bed. The camera remains close on their faces, turning their intimacy into a relatable proposition. Later, when a newly single Shirin gets drawn into an awkward threesome, Akhavan reveals much about the character’s profound discontent through telling expressions rather than soul-searching dialogue. It’s these access points to her rocky life that make it easy to engage with her strife on a personal level.
Indeed, the aspect of Shirin’s life that defines her Iranian-American roots amount to something of a red herring. “You can’t keep playing the Persian card,” Maxine says, which gets to the heart of the issue: “Appropriate Behavior” isn’t a narrative about ethnicity or even LGBT struggles in the traditional sense, but rather a means of exploring the problems that result from reinforcing those very barriers. In the process, it introduces a thoroughly modern voice.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering in Sundance’s NEXT category, “Appropriate Behavior” should land a midsize distributor with a strong VOD presence. Appeal is limited, though decent word of mouth could make it a minor breakout success, and should certainly help establish Akhavan as a talent to watch.