When Desiree Akhavan first appears onscreen in her feature debut Appropriate Behavior, one thing is for sure: she’s a stunner. With a statuesque figure, dark cascading hair and intense eyes, the Iranian-American filmmaker and actress captivates in a way that few can. And then she opens her mouth, and the deadpan humor comes rolling out as natural as an exhale — then you really start to pay attention.
Akhavan, who wrote, directed and stars in the film, plays Shirin, an unemployed 20-something New Yorker introduced storming out of the one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her ex-girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Intent on getting over her old flame, she embarks on a string of increasingly awkward sexual encounters, including a one-night stand with a self-described social justice comedian and a three-way with a latex-obsessed couple. Feeling less than satisfied with the dating scene and her temporary job as a film teacher/glorified nanny, she begins to fixate on her once-happy relationship, and on how her refusal to come out as bisexual to her traditional Persian parents drove Maxine away.
The indie comedy, which cuts back and forth between Shirin’s present-day transition and key moments from her life with Maxine, will certainly draw comparisons to Annie Hall, only unlike Woody Allen, Akhavan has no desire to portray her protagonist as the neurotic, but well-meaning good guy. She writes Shirin as an amusing, but ultimately flawed character prone to delusion (the claim that she and Maxine were an “it” couple draws doubtful looks), inconsideration, and jealousy, which makes for some nasty moments. When, during one argument, Shirin lashes out with, “You ruined my twenties,” Akhavan delivers it not with a pained expression, but with cold, deliberately hurtful detachment.
Despite all the discomfort that arises from the main character’s antics, Akhavan keeps the overall experience light with a droll, easy-going approach. Most of the jokes land, albeit softly, and work best as interactions between Shirin and those closest to her, including her boy-crazy best friend, Crystal (Halley Feiffer), and her over-achieving older brother, Ali (Arian Moayed). The dialogue teases out, rather than pushes for laughs during casual conversations over lunch or bra shopping – at one point, during a stroll down the sidewalk with Crystal, Shirin explains how another Middle Eastern woman stole her thunder at a former journalism job, adding, “Everyone’s gushing over how Syrian she is.”
While much of Akhavan’s writing hits the mark, the numerous attempts to skewer insufferable Brooklyn hipster culture, and all the pretentious art projects, artisan kombucha, and vintage tattoos that come with it, hardly come off as original in a world where Smirnoff commercials poke fun at mixologists. There’s also the miscalculated addition of 30 Rock actor Scott Adsit as a pot-smoking stay-at-home dad whose unfunny shtick revolves around constantly mispronouncing Shirin’s name.
The film’s focus on aimless millennials may lead to Akhavan being lumped in with other young talents such as Lena Dunham, a fair comparison considering that both women will soon appear together on the HBO series Girls. Though not entirely fresh, Appropriate Behavior marks a strong first-time effort for the director, and establishes her ability as both a filmmaker and as an actress with considerable screen presence.
Appropriate Behavior is now in limited release and on VOD.