The delightful byproduct of living in a post-Girls pop-culture-verse is that even if you don’t care for Lena Dunham, or if you find her creative output too preciously self-effacing (or self-aware, or self-interested, or any other self-[blank] adjective you can muster), her influence is likely to inspire other media that does tickle your fancy. Case in point: Appropriate Behavior, Persian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan’s remarkable feature debut, and a film that’s very clearly a cousin to HBO’s vaunted comedy drama (now entering into its fourth season on a boob tube near you).
Everybody and their hip boomer parents will compare Appropriate Behavior to Girls. Everybody. That proves the blatancy of their family resemblance; you can no more ignore the influence of Dunham in Akhavan’s film than the effect that, say, the French New Wave has had on Wes Anderson. We all have our influences; Akhavan simply imprints hers on her movie’s sleeves, and immediately subsumes them with intimately personal matters unique to her background. Appropriate Behavior isn’t just a movie about unmoored twenty-somethings set against the backdrop of a disaffected Brooklyn landscape. It’s about straddling cultural lines.
To perform that balancing act, Akhavan renders Appropriate Behavior loose in shape and keen in focus. The plot, such as it is, centers on her character, Shirin, whose life reflects bits and pieces and, perhaps, slabs of Akhavan’s own. Shirin is a daughter of Iranian immigrants, firmly but secretly bisexual, muddling through adulthood backed by a Master’s in journalism. Her brother is a successful doctor, engaged to a woman who easily meets the standards of parental approval. Meanwhile, Shirin has yet to land on a career, and she can’t even comfortably bring up the subject of her sexuality with her folks.
This is a point of contention for Shirin’s ex-girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Their break-up spurs Appropriate Behavior forward; much of its running time is spent in flashback as Shirin mulls over their relationship in between the margins of the present, where she explores her carnality through a range of hook-ups. Shirin sets out to test the waters, and the waters are awkward and unpleasant, whether with a pretty boy found via OkCupid or a swinger couple she meets at a bar. The latter encounter proves to be a major ordeal, which ends with hurt feelings after Shirin fails to fit into the threesome. That’s probably the ultimate metaphor for the entire film—whether in her sexscapades or her attempts to inhabit her upbringing, Shirin’s experiences constantly reinforce her loneliness and the sensation of being an outsider.
Which makes Appropriate Behavior sound kind of like a king bummer. But the film never runs purely on maudlin. There’s a naked earnestness coursing through its narrative, yes, and that sincerity has the welcome side effect of diffusing all traces of vanity. That thrumming you detect from one scene to the next? It’s heartache, not pomp and aggrandizement. And yet Appropriate Behavior is often very, very funny, occasionally uproarious. Akhavan knows how to use her neuroses and her physical allure to maximum comic effect, spilling drinks and fussing over gossip and eventually going all-in on Louis C.K. territory, ending her picture on a note of gaseous hilarity. It’s a majestic fart joke which deserves no ounce of shame wasted on its enjoyment.
Appropriate Behavior could have played like a cheap Dunham knock-off (or even like Tiny Furniture with more farting). But amazingly, Akhavan’s film does in an hour and a half what Girls has done over thirty three episodes. For all Akhavan’s brevity, and for its lens of ground-level realism, her picture feels vibrant, lived in, and incredibly rich. That’s an assured mark of vision if ever there was one.
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Writer: Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Scott Adsit, Anh Duong, Arian Moayed
Release Date: Jan. 16th, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.