By Katie Walsh | The Playlist January 19, 2014 at 10:04AM
The feature debut of Desiree Akhavan, “Appropriate Behavior,” opens with the writer/director/star casually carrying a strap-on dildo down a Brooklyn street. Therein lies both the irony that makes the title so humorous and the thesis statement of her film: Akhavan is going to take her sexuality and walk it down the street for all to see—but in a cool, funny, casual way, with a healthy dose of irreverent self-awareness. Akhavan stars as Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite going through a devastating breakup with her girlfriend Maxine. She’s also underemployed and almost magnetically drawn to the ridiculous situations that make living in a big city both exciting and ludicrous. To top it off, Shirin has the added challenge of living up to the expectations of her very particular Iranian-American family.
“Appropriate Behavior” is a quintessentially New York romantic dramedy, filled with the trials, travails, anxieties and over-analysis that populate the likes of Woody Allen or Lena Dunham’s work, but Akhavan’s voice is so specifically unique that only the setting (and neuroses) bears the comparison. Another, more apt similarity came to mind while watching Akhavan onscreen: she’s as charming and likable as Greta Gerwig, who elevates everything around her just because she’s fun to be around. Akhavan is much the same way, her persona smoothing over any of the rough parts of a first feature, such as minor lags in pace or slightly cliché side characters (Felicia, Shirin’s hipster roommate, unfortunately falls into that category).
Still, it’s not just Akhavan’s movie. Halley Feiffer, as her best friend Crystal, steals every scene she’s in, and Rebecca Henderson, as Maxine, Shirin’s ex, is the perfect overly serious butch foil to whimsical, overly honest, yet still closeted, Shirin. Scott Adsit is spot on as a loopy Park Slope dad who offers Shirin a job teaching filmmaking to a bunch of overprivileged kindergartners. In fact, almost every supporting character is devastating in their urban hipster accuracy.
In the wake of her breakup, Shirin bed-hops, putting the motto “the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else,” to the test. Thus, the film is rife with awkward sexual encounters and experimentation, but that’s not the only view of sex that “Appropriate Behavior” has—there are also moments of truly sexy intimacy, both casual and loving. What the film does so well is show how these two things coexist; how it can turn on a dime from hot to awkward, much like real life. There’s no condemnation or celebration of sex in this film, the sex just exists, in a very normal and healthy way—pleasure, hilarity, disappointment, and all. What this movie is trying to say is, let’s all carry our strap-ons down the street because we want to carry our strap-ons down the street, and we won’t be embarrassed by it.
“Appropriate Behavior” has a light and ironic outlook on the things that make Brooklyn life what it is, be it silly or ridiculous: from dating, to casual sex, to roommates, jobs, and of course, OkCupid. These are all balanced by the very real issues of culture, identity, and sexuality, and the two work so well together due to the genuine honesty that Akhavan brings to the material. In juggling so many different identity markers, and in attempting to follow or ignore all of her urges, Shirin finds that the best thing—the only thing—to be is yourself, flaws and all. This is expertly demonstrated in the silly and hilarious movie that Shirin makes with her band of five-year-old boys, as embracing exactly what they want to do allows her to see the merit in embracing exactly what she wants on her own terms. What we understand from this, even in all of its scatalogical glory, is the cathartic power of filmmaking in representing and understanding one’s own identity.
There are a few elements of the film that aren’t completely successful—the dialogue, though well-written, sometimes feels a bit stilted in delivery, and the pace is often too deliberate. Though intricately structured in a non-linear fashion, there are times when it feels like the film needs to break out into a more energetic or kinetic direction. Still, the voice and outlook are an incredibly appealing and refreshing perspective on this already well-trodden material. Funny, unique, and entirely inappropriate, “Appropriate Behavior” is a supremely satisfying and irreverent take on the New York rom-com. [B+]