How Should a Person Be?: Appropriate Behavior

by |
01/14/2015 12:21 PM |
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Appropriate Behavior
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Opens January 16


“I find your anger incredibly sexy.”
“I hate so many things, too.”

And on the other hand:

“Thank you so much for accepting my invitation.”
“Well, I couldn’t have refused even if I wanted to… all those people.”
“You’re right… I will invite them all to our wedding.”

Now. Which of these exchanges is prelude to a kiss, and which sets the tone for a terrible first date? Appropriate Behavior, the debut feature from Iranian-American writer-director Desiree Akhavan, lives on the incredibly fine margins that separate flirtatious repartee from social disaster: the rare thrill of finding someone on the same wavelength as you, versus the humiliation of misreading a room—or the bitterness, the ease with which insults flow, when an intimate relationship goes south. Appropriate Behavior begins as Shirin (Akhavan) and Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) finalize their breakup, and moves forward with Shirin through romantic and personal uncertainty (she downplays her quarterlife drift, and particularly her bisexuality, to her Tehran-born parents). Intercut flashbacks give the arc of the Maxine relationship, from meet-cute (including the first of the above-quoted dialogues, if you’re still wondering) to cohabitation to str8 backsliding. The way Akhavan sketches sexual and subcultural identity is specific, subtle and suggestive (Shirin’s eye makeup and Maxine’s horn-rims each tell their own stories), no less so for being mostly a backdrop from which the majority-female ensemble cast can launch its one-liners. (Though the film is largely episodic, Halley Feiffer, as Shirin’s straight straight-woman, has a number of scenes in which to develop broad variations on a delightfully unconvincing nonjudgmental sounding-board face.)

Though recently relocated to Manhattan at the time of Appropriate Behavior’s bow at Sundance 2014, Akhavan’s sense of humor, as previously witnessed through her web series The Slope, is hyperlocal to Brooklyn, namely Park Slope (Scott Adsit as the stay-at-home stoner dad who hires Shirin to lead a filmmaking workshop for five-year-olds named “Cujo” and “Groucho”) and Bushwick (Shirin’s roommate in the McKibben Lofts refers to “my taxidermist”). Though Akhavan has gathered many Lena Dunham comparisons for her self-aware trainwreck persona and polished dialogue—and will feature heavily in the upcoming season of Girls—a less-remarked similarity is that both of their projects demonstrate how well Kings County inside jokes play as universal punchlines.