In a scene halfway through Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate
Behavior” (opening Friday via Gravitas Ventures), Shirin (played by Akhavan) finds herself nudged out of a threesome.
As she watches her menage-a-trois partners get along without her, it becomes
clear that Shirin is a young woman who hasn’t yet found a place to fit in, both
in the sexual escapade unfolding before her, and in life.
While the scene above isn’t played for laughs, and indeed
emerges as one of the strongest sequences in the film because of its keen sense
of melancholy, “Appropriate Behavior” is a comedy, and Shirin its dead-pan
heroine. Shirin is a twentysomething living in Brooklyn, a narrative familiar
enough in the Mumblecore genre. But Shirin is also Iranian-American and
bisexual, and hasn’t yet come out to her parents. She’s reeling
from a breakup with her ex-girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson),
the first woman Shirin’s been in a serious relationship with.
While Akhavan’s concise film will draw inevitable
comparisons to “Girls” — the Brooklyn setting, the unapologetic portrayal of
sexual encounters, a narcissistic lead who resolutely flails around in life — “Appropriate
Behavior” has an impressively subdued quality all its own. Akhavan’s delivery
is quiet and monotone, a bit like a live-action Daria. When she says a line like “I’m going to lie here for long enough to see if I can forget what it feels like
to be loved,” it’s funny (if not in a broad, laugh-out-loud way) but also tart.
Akhavan’s assembled a good supporting cast around her,
including Scott Adsit (“30 Rock”) as her perpetually stoned employer who gives
her a job in a pre-Kindergarten filmmaking class; Halley Feiffer, as Shirin’s ditsy yet
non-judgmental sidekick; and a very good Henderson, who realistically communicates Maxine’s
frustration at Shirin’s reluctance to come out to her parents.
Ahn Duong and Arian Moayed, who play Shirin’s parents, are also strong,
neither caricatures of rigid traditionalism nor unrealistically upbeat about Shirin’s lifestyle. When Shirin
does finally come out to her mother, the scene plays out just right. This isn’t
to say it goes well, as Shirin’s mother denies what her daughter is struggling
to tell her. Yet it’s a good place for Shirin to start. She hasn’t found a
place to fit in, and remains awkwardly at a distance from ready-made categories
(gay, straight, good Iranian daughter, bad Iranian daughter). But beginning a
dialogue is the type of behavior that may just bring her happiness one day, on
her own terms.