Recently I attended a screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center of Appropriate Behavior, a romantic comedy set in Brooklyn about hipsters. Shirin is an Iranian-American bisexual obsessing about Maxine, her cool butch lesbian ex-girlfriend, following their crash and burn breakup. The story time travels back and forth when they were happily together in the recent past with newly single Shirin disastrously coping in her miserable present. My expectations for this film hovered at the bottom of the ocean. Much to my surprise, I found this briskly paced debut feature by screenwriter-director-star, Desiree Akhavan, who plays Shirin, entertaining. It’s witty, she’s pretty and this edgy tale is packed with sex, angst and colorful glimpses into Iranian American culture and customs.
What’s not to like?
Something I wasn’t wild about was The Knuckle Dragger who stood directly in front of me completely blocking my view after the film ended, just as the q&a was about to start. Eventually, Lurch realized that they had more in common with a door than a window. Often, I find the questions asked in film screening q&a’s painfully stupid. For example:
Audience Member: How many of you [actors] were playing yourself?
Did this person think that Akhavan had directed a documentary?
Akhavan, who has extensively screened her film on the festival circuit, was an admirable pro fielding such an idiotic question that drew audience gasps or maybe I was just hearing the sound of my own less than silent GERD. I later realized that it could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment. Akhavan did a commendable job directing her actors who were very well cast. She and Rebecca Henderson, who plays Maxine, had palpable chemistry.
Akhavan has been referred to as “the Persian Lena Dunham”. Dunham is a major player in the zeitgeist and no doubt Akhavan would love to follow that “it” girl’s influential lead. The comparisons are obvious: Akhavan has screen presence, a clever way with words and she is very comfortable both behind and in front of the camera. For the fourth and current season of Girls, Dunham has written Akhavan into her hit series. That strikes me as a vote of confidence from Dunham to Akhavan.
During the q&a Akhavan admitted that her screenplay was influenced by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. In lieu of revealing any spoilers, I detected some homage to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Appropriate Behavior also brought to mind an early Ang Lee film, The Wedding Banquet, a romantic comedy about an Asian American son’s anxiety over admitting that he is gay to his immigrant parents. Shirin is in the closet to her parents. The stress to come out contributes to her neurosis and adds to her problems with Maxine. Akhavan is blatantly and subtly borrowing from some of the best veteran filmmakers, but I also recognized a unique voice and perspective that is her own. I look forward to seeing what she directs next.
Appropriate Behavior opens January 16th in New York City at the IFC Center, and theaters in select cities coast to coast. Check local listings. It’s also available on iTunes. Sex, partial nudity, drugs and 90 painless minutes when q&a-free.