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.