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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Appropriate Behavior

Appropriate Behavior is going to see plenty of comparisons to the works of Lena Dunham. It's understandable. Both Appropriate Behavior and Dunham's Girls and Tiny Furniture chronicle twenty-something women struggling to grow up and find themselves in a particularly hip circle of New York youth. But Desiree Akhavan's debut feature film - which she wrote, directed, and starred in - is descended just as much if not moreso from Woody Allen's Annie Hall, something Akhavan acknowledges explicitly more than once in the film, a postmortem on a romance gone awry by a woman who just can't quite bring herself to believe it couldn't work. 

Shirin (Akhavan) is a twenty-something bisexual girl descended from traditional Iranian immigrants. Her parents are successful, her brother is successful, but despite her Master's degree in journalism, Shirin is still a bit lost, even more so after a rough breakup with live-in girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) that causes them to split. She gets a new job - a 'film teacher' to five-year-olds whose parents use her as affordable daycare - and gets back out on the social scene, but can't seem to let go of her ex, no matter how many awkward run-ins the two have or strange sexual encounters she finds herself in.

Akhavan is fantastic as Shirin, a relaxed, droll presence on the screen that finds a considerable amount of charm in her underachieving lead character. And she has great chemisty with Rebecca Henderson's Maxine. Maxine is dour and a bit humorless, a driven woman who is clearly a poor match for Shirin from the second they meet, but Henderson finds plenty of heart in what could have been a stock 'shitty ex' role. Even better, though, are Shirin's interactions with virtually every bit player in the story. Akhavan has a keen observational eye for human comedy and a sharp sense of characterization that comes through in the supporting cast. Her hip bestie Crystal (Halley Feiffer) gets the bulk of the film's outright comedy, though she underplays the role admirably so as never to feel too much like the comedic sidekick, but I think a huge part of the emotional side of the film works because of her relationships with her parents (Ann Duong, Hooman Majd) and brother (Arian Moayed), who don't yet know about her sexuality and can't figure out why she isn't married yet.

Akhavan's writing is sharp, but her direction is particularly impressive, particularly regarding sexuality. Sex scenes in movies often feel bland and samey, but the sex scenes in Appropriate Behavior always tell us where these characters are emotionally, often without any dialogue at all. A post-breakup fling Shirin has with a hot guy she meets on OK Cupid cuts smartly, just before it starts, to one of her warmer sexual encounters with Maxine, a clever, wordless way to show us where Shirin's heart and mind really are right then, while a late-film threesome manages to shift tone almost wordlessly at least three times. There's an intimacy to Appropriate Behavior that sets it apart from the works of Lena Dunham and Woody Allen, a willingness to explore sensuality in a positive way, and a huge part of why that works comes through in her fantastic control of the film's tone and the characters' relationships.

Appropriate Behavior is essential viewing for anyone looking for a sharply observed modern drama, an in-depth character study about an outsider trying to find her own place in the world in the aftermath of a breakup. Not just because it's an excellent movie (though it is) and not just because of its strong casting and quiet observational humor, but because of Akhavan herself. As a writer, as a director, as a star - Desiree Akhavan is someone you should be keeping an eye on, because this is a seriously killer debut.

Appropriate Behavior premiered at Sundance 2014, and received a limited theatrical and VOD release on January 16th, 2015. Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior stars Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, and Halley Feiffer.
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