Movie Review: ‘Appropriate Behavior’ Is A Great First Film From Desiree Akhavan

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s finally here! That is, if you have been anxiously awaiting a twist in the New York hipster Romantic Dramedy genre; and if the twist you want is a semi-autobiographical story of a Persian bi-sexual female whose focus in life is making her ex-partner jealous, while hiding the truth from her own conservative parents.

Desiree Akhavan is the first time writer/director who also stars as Shirin, the lead character described above. Ms. Akhavan and the movie owe so much to Lena Dunham (“Girls”) that the opening credits should have had a placard stating “Inspired by Lena”. There is no shame in crediting those who influence one’s work. We also see touches of Woody Allen and Nia Vardalos in Akhavan’s writing, and Greta Gerwig in her acting style. What we haven’t seen before, is an opening scene depicting the leading character breaking up with her partner and walking down the street toting her strap-on.

Shirin is a twenty-something New Yorker who is insecure and judgmental, cynical yet hopeful, lacking in self-esteem, without any discernible professional talent or social skills, and void of any ambition … other than making her ex, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) so jealous that she will come running back. Her “plan” is to sleep with many strangers of both sexes until one of these trysts makes Maxine see that she can’t live without Shirin. She does all of this while dodging poverty working at a kindergarten teaching filmmaking to 5 year olds. We are told Shirin has a Masters in Journalism, just so we understand she has chosen this path in life.

As a filmmaker, Ms. Akhavan shows real promise. Her feel and eye for crucial scenes between two people is very strong, though the dialogue could have used some help – many of the one-liners probably sounded funnier in her head than they come across on screen. Her use of flashbacks was especially creative as she juxtaposed good and bad moments of Shirin/Maxine with what’s happening at any given moment. The sexual escapades and the unique community of New York hipsters will probably prevent this from any type of mainstream success, but it should provide opportunities for Akhavan as a filmmaker. Not surprisingly, as an actress, she will be appearing in the next season of “Girls”.

The Persian undercurrent seemed to provide the most potential for a real story of interest, though the focus on bi-sexuality more readily grabs headlines. Shirin’s relationship with her parents and the Iranian community offered a chance for illumination and unique exchanges, but unfortunately most of these were glossed over for the next party or pick-up. “Persians communicate mostly through gossip” is a fascinating line that begged for more attention, and Shirin’s attempt to come out while talking with her mom was well done and so deserved a follow up.

Supporting work is provided by Halley Feiffer (daughter of Jules Feiffer) as Shirin’s best friend Crystal. Ms. Feiffer steals every scene in which she appears, and had me wanting to learn more about her character. Scott Adsit (“30 Rock”) plays the urban-stoner dad who gets Shirin her the teaching job that leads to the “Tale of the Lost Fart” – the turning point for Shirin as she finally reaches the moment when she realizes she has gotten over Maxine. The first film from an exciting new talent always brings a balance of anticipation and a reminder to keep our hopes in check. Here’s hoping Desiree Akhavan has more to say.

Opens in NY and LA and On Demand January 16.

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