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Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Appropriate Behavior (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson

Don't let the horrifically generic title fool you, Desiree Akhavan's feature debut Appropriate Behavior is a sharp and funny comedy that manages to feel fresh even as it cribs from the almost 40-year-old Annie Hall. A film about a bisexual Iranian (which, in and of itself, is revolutionary in a minor way) living in New York and struggling to get over a breakup with her girlfriend, Appropriate Behavior is a well-observed comedy about the specific kind of mid-20s narcissism which dictates that every feeling must be worked up into a the most dramatic feeling ever because otherwise you might lose everyone's attention - even your own. Appropriate Behavior may not be a movie that will speak to everyone, but it has something that a lot of movies seem to lack these days: a voice.

Akhavan stars as Shirin who, as the film opens, is in the process of moving out of the apartment that she shared with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). For a while she crashes on the couch of her friend Cheryl (Halley Feiffer), who tries to be supportive but is somewhat baffled by Shirin's rose-colored view of the relationship and her determination to get Maxine back, and then manages to find a room for rent, leaving her family (who have no idea that she and Maxine were a couple) confused about why she would leave her former place for this new one. In between coming up with ways of "accidentally" running into Maxine by trying (in a hilariously cringe inducing scene) to get a shift at the co-op where Maxine shops, showing up at a lecture she knows Maxine will be attending, and going to a party where she knows Maxine will be, Shirin has a series of dating/sexual adventures, the object of which is as much to try to get over Maxine as to try to find a way to make her jealous and lure her back. For the most part, though, these encounters (which range from an OKCupid facilitated date which finds her drinking in an alley with a doofus, to an unexpected threesome with a pair of kinky hipsters which ends about as awkwardly as possible) do nothing to alleviate the hurt that Shirin is feeling and in fact only give her more reason to wallow in depression ("Can you tell I'm dead inside just by looking at me?" she deadpans at one point - it's the kind of depression that requires an audience).

The only thing that will really make Shirin feel better is getting back together with Maxine, though flashbacks reveal that she's idealizing the relationship in hindsight. Really, everything that needs to be said about how stable it was and why it didn't last is expressed through how they get together in the first place: it's New Years Eve and each has fled the party they're attending. Maxine engages in a small rant about how annoyed she is by the pretensions of people who live in Brooklyn, and Shirin's response is, "I hate so many things, too." It's not much to create a relationship out of, but they jump right into it, quickly moving in together and then, seemingly just as quickly, begin to fall apart. Part of the problem is Shirin's inability to come out to her parents, who at one point visit the apartment, take note of the fact that there is one bed, and casually accept Shirin's explanation that two people platonically sharing a bed is a European, money saving trend (Shirin's father's response? "Italians are weird."). The other problem is that Maxine just never seems to be as into the relationship as Shirin is, possibly because she doesn't trust that it isn't just a phase for her, but also because they just have nothing in common. Breaking up was inevitable, no matter how much Shirin may want to go back and re-write history to idealize the relationship.

Akhavan, who wrote the screenplay in addition to taking on directing and acting duties, has a knack for writing the sort of clean, quick exchanges of dialogue that can tell you everything you need to know about the characters and where they're at within a moment, in addition to having note perfect delivery as an actress. There's a scene late in the film, when Shirin and Maxine run into each other at a party and Maxine reveals that she's brought a date, mentioning that she's an excellent dancer because she regularly takes a "West African dance class." "Is she black?" Shirin asks. When Maxine says no, Shirin replies, "She's sounds awesome." Akhavan's delivery of that line (and the way the scene builds up to that part of the dialogue) is what makes the scene, but it also subtly functions to touch on one of the film's main thematic concerns, which is the issue of privilege in various forms. There's the privilege of cultural appropriation/fetishization (which also comes up when Shirin brings Maxine to an Iranian party), the privilege that Shirin exercises by passing for straight and which so annoys Maxine, and the privilege that Maxine has in not coming from a cultural background that makes coming out seem like an impossibility (in addition to the privilege she has in already having gone through the coming out process, which in turn causes her to be frustrated by how slowly she perceives Shirin's process to be playing out). That sense of privilege isn't something that the characters are necessarily aware of, but it definitely has an effect on the ways that they interact with each other and speaks to the issues that arise between them.

The cultural differences between Shirin and Maxine - by which I mean both the ancestral differences between them, as well as the differences that arise from Maxine identifying as lesbian and Shirin identifying as bisexual (and, as Maxine laments, only being interested in the parts of gay culture related to drag) - provide rich territory for Akhavan to mine and she manages to do so without a heavy hand. She also manages, despite the film's focus on why the relationship didn't work, to carve out little moments which explain why Shirin is clinging so fiercely to it. Though the scene in which they meet telegraphs why they'll eventually break up, it is nevertheless charmingly caustic and there's another scene in which the two get high (discovering, in the process, that the one thing they have in common is that they're "the same kind of stoned person") and have a conversation that is alternately funny and sweet. Akhavan and Henderson have good chemistry and bring the relationship, and the characters, to life flawlessly, helping to make Appropriate Behavior an uncommonly delightful film and a strong and assured debut by Akhavan.

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