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Appropriate Behavior – Review


Release Date: 16 January 2015 [USA]
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Writer: Desiree Akhavan [Screenplay & Story] - Cecilia Frugiuele [Story]
Cast: Desiree Akhavan - Rebecca Henderson - Scott Adsit - Halley Feiffer



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Posted January 26, 2015 by

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Appropriate Behavior Review:

If you liked (500) Days of Summer but found yourself longing for more Iranians and lesbians, Appropriate Behavior may be just the movie for you. Actually, you will probably like it even if you never saw Summer, or are neutral on the subject of Iranians and lesbians, provided you like smart, irreverent romantic comedies about quirky characters. Appropriate Behavior is the debut feature from Desiree Akhavan, who writes, directs, and stars as Shirin, an Iranian-American twenty-something navigating a modern New York minefield, armed only with her confused sexuality and withering deadpan wit.

Akhavan’s previous achievement, The Slope, offered many of the same pleasures, but in a shorter, far more casual manner. That web series featured more talk than action or plot. In Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan has a real story to tell, and though her non-linear editing can be confusing at times, that story can be very touching.

When we meet Shirin, she is in the process of breaking up with her most recent lover Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and Shirin is not taking it well. With some help from platonic BFF Crystal (Halley Feiffer), she begins putting the pieces back together by taking a job and making tentative excursions into what passes for dating in NY. Her big internal obstacle, coming out to her parents, remains in the distance.

Akhavan intersperses scenes of the rise and fall of her relationship with Maxine – a la (500) Days of Summer – into her present troubles. It works sporadically. At times, it creates very effective moments. Their cute “meet” on a stoop outside an unpleasant New Year’s Eve party is both poignant and sexually charged. At other times, such as when we cut instantaneously from Shirin’s new male lover back to a similar sex scene with Maxine, it is simply jarring.

Two things elevate Appropriate Behavior about a movie like Obvious Child, the 2014 Gillian Robespierre/Jenny Slate comedy about another single young woman navigating modern love and sex in the big city. First, Akhavan shares most of the good lines with her supporting actors. Crystal has a great offhand moment when she is curious about whether the bi-sexual swingers will try to include her in their threesome. Shirin’s brother Ali, (Arian Moayad), who as a straight selfish blowhard, might simply be the butt of self-congratulatory jokes, gets to trade witty putdowns with Shirin throughout. Even characters who only get a scene or two make an impression. And Maxine gets plenty of good moments, both when she and Shirin are a couple and when they are through.

Beneath it all, there is a level of honesty that is rarely found in romantic comedies. That was one of the hallmarks of The Slope, and if anything, in her first feature, Akhavan goes deeper. There is a great moment early on when Shirin and Maxine laugh about the way men have no sense of humor regarding impotence. But what might have come off as simply mean-spirited penis bashing actually plays like a genuine inquiry. They really can’t understand why men can’t laugh about such things. And though “honesty” is often just a code word for cruelty, Ajkavan brings a degree of actual warmth to her often bitchy comedy. More often than not, her insults are turned inward. And they almost never feel gratuitous. They seem realistically grounded in her own pain and confusion.

The other thing that separates Appropriate Behavior from Obvious Child is that the fart humor is confined almost exclusively to five year olds. We have seen in recent years (perhaps tied to the growing cultural significance of Lena Dunham’s Girls) that in order to be edgy and fresh, female comedians have to be just as gross as men when it comes to bodily function humor. I like a good fart joke as much as the next guy, but Obvious Child seemed to roll around in it for no particular reason, and with diminishing returns. In Appropriate Behavior, Shirin teaches a group of five year old boys how to make a video, and the boys, as you might expect, want to make a movie about farting. It is a short, hilarious sequence, and best of all, it seems “appropriate” to the material.

Appropriate Behavior is not going to win awards. Its plot is rather thin and that structure can put you off at times. But it is full of strong characters – mostly lesbian or bi-sexual women – many laugh-out-loud moments, and some genuine insight into modern sexuality. That’s pretty good right there. And considering that another Iranian-American woman, Ana Lily Amirpour, recently released her very impressive debut, the moody vampire horror A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it may just signal the start of something even bigger coming from Iranian female filmmakers.


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Jonathan Eig
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