By John Duncan Talbird.
Writer-Director Desiree Akhavan’s funny and touching first film, Appropriate Behavior, is one of a type of smart, simple dramas that have appeared over the past few years: Rachel Getting Married (2008), Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Frances Ha, and Celeste and Jesse Forever (both 2012) to name just a few. They’re funny and pithy, often having a tone of pathos throughout, and generally end in a bittersweet way. They’re stripped down narratively in that their stories are simple, often taking place within a year, sometimes just a few days, and they have small casts. In the supersize-it! modern world of cinema, where comic book movies have left two-hour running times long behind and push ever closer toward the three-hour mark, these films are refreshingly concise, almost all, including Appropriate Behavior, running at the ninety-minute mark (Rachel Getting Married is a long-winded 113 minutes). They’re not the micro-budget films of Andrew Bujalski and his “mumblecore” brethren, but they’re often cheap. (Not always. Frances Ha, had, unbelievably, a $7 million budget [the rights to Bowie’s “Modern Love”?] and Rachel Getting Married a jaw-dropping $12 million. But the beautifully made and acted Your Sister’s Sister had a budget of only $125,000.) They have a similar aesthetic to each other, shot on digital, much of it handheld. But what most makes these films stick together in my mind is the fact that they have interesting, flawed, compelling female characters without turning into what would generally be thought of as “chick flicks.” The films simultaneously feel fresh and somewhat nostalgic. They remind me of the low-budget movies that Cassavetes, Woody Allen, and Scorsese were making in the seventies. Except that women in these newer films have a bigger role in their conception and end-products: Jenny Lumet wrote Rachel Getting Married, Lynn Shelton wrote and directed Your Sister’s Sister, Greta Gerwig co-wrote Frances Ha, and Rashida Jones co-wrote and shared executive production duties for Celeste and Jesse Forever.
Akhavan, who not only wrote and directed Appropriate Behavior, but also stars in it, departs in one crucial way from the above films which all deal with young white people trying to figure out how to be adults. (Rashida Jones is mixed race, but I’d argue that she is performing whiteness in Celeste and Jesse.) Akhavan is Iranian-American and her character Shirin’s Persian heritage is very much a part of the story. Also, Shirin is bisexual and in the closet with her supportive but traditional family. The setting is Brooklyn and it is the image of the borough that is so popular with the world these days, a place for searching, and somewhat alienated, educated young people. In fact, the film also brings to mind Lena Dunham’s great TV show Girls which depicts lost — and narcissistic — young people struggling in New York’s new cultural center. Akhavan will be joining the cast of Girls for the next season, supposedly to remedy the TV show’s lack of diversity. However, all one needs to do is look at one of those interactive maps on the New York Times website to realize how stratified most neighborhoods in Brooklyn are. If your show or movie is filmed in Green Point or Williamsburg, it’s going to look pretty white. And Appropriate Behavior, reflecting the gentrified neighborhoods in which it is set, is pretty white. (Shirin’s Persian family lives in New Jersey.)
We start with the relationship, a relationship that is coming to an end. The shot opens on Shirin’s face, looking miserable on the subway. Cinematographer Chris Teague manages to convey that feeling that every New Yorker has sometimes, the sensation of being crowded by others on the train even when your car is half-empty. The opening evokes a sense of oppression. Cut to Shirin’s apartment where we suss out through body language that she and her girlfriend are breaking up. Shirin fills a box with her things, including one of those strips of photos you get in those do-it-yourself booths (standard props for any cinematic couple). The girlfriend, Maxine, played with aplomb by Rebecca Henderson, sits morosely on the bed, flipping through a magazine. She says, “Don’t forget this,” motioning to something in a box. “I gave that to you as a gift,” Shirin responds, heart breaking. “I don’t want it,” Maxine says. “Then throw it away.” “I don’t want to touch it.” Ouch. We’re in a not-unfamiliar place, we think. This is one of those gloomy “indie” films in which a bunch of privileged young people grouse about how life isn’t fair. I start to feel depressed, along with Shirin, as she plops this box on top of her other belongings and walks outside and drops the whole mess in a dumpster. And then she pauses. She looks into the dumpster and we have a bird’s-eye shot of the mysterious box and, of course, it’s a gigantic strap-on dildo. Shirin grabs the dildo by its rubbery shaft and walks off down the street, and the title, Appropriate Behavior, is splashed across the screen.
This was the first of many belly laughs that erupted frequently through the New York screening I attended, though a lot of the humor is subtler than this. Much of it emerges simply from the dialogue and the physical interactions between Akhavan and her costars, a lot of it sexually charged, quite a bit of it squirmingly embarrassing. One of the funniest stream-of-consciousness pot conversations I’ve seen in a movie happens between Shirin and Maxine. And the first time we’re introduced to Shirin’s family, the dialogue is fast and natural, both entertaining the audience and giving us crucial backstory. Shrin’s brother Ali (Arian Moayed) is the typical first-child of immigrants, a humorless overachiever who has no patience for his younger sister’s slow progress in finding herself, more than once reminding her, and their parents, that she has a master’s degree in journalism. When Shirin makes a jibe at Ali’s fiancée for “only” being a plastic surgeon while her med student brother will be saving lives, Shirin is embarrassed with poetic justice when it turns out that the girlfriend is actually training to be a pediatric surgeon with a specialty in skin grafts for child burn victims.
Despite moments of humorous tension like this, her family is not depicted as intolerant or close-minded. In fact, the scenes with her family are often quite touching. Her father, played by Hooman Majd, is an antidote to all the stern, loud and unforgiving immigrant fathers the movies have given us over the years. And the mother, played by Anh Duong, seems to be somewhat in awe of her strange and untraditional daughter. It’s moving, and very funny, in the scene where her parents and brother move her into a dingy Bushwick loft shared by a couple of wacky artists. Her mother cleans dishes, her father lugs boxes, the brother continues to grouse, but makes himself useful too. This film complicates the type of stories we’ve seen in similar milieus — the young woman trying to discover who she is; the gay/bisexual woman trying to decide when, or if, to come out of the closet; the children of immigrants who live simultaneously in two worlds. There’s a lot of love here in this film. There’s some sadness, but there’s also a lot of humor. I won’t say what happens when Shirin finally decides to tell her mother about her sexual orientation, but the mother’s answer — and the scene following, the next morning — are so natural and right that you feel that nothing else could have possibly happened.
I can’t say enough good about this deceptively simple film. The digital cinematography is beautiful. The B-roll doesn’t look like B-roll, but crucial misc-en-scene, capturing both the grunginess and the gentrification of New York’s hippest borough. The script and the editing by Sara Shaw is masterful, taking us between the post-breakup life of Shirin and the early days of the relationship so that sometimes we don’t even notice that we’ve shifted in time. But we don’t feel disoriented. There’s a timelessness to the trajectory of the plot so that it feels all of a piece (Akhavan has cited Annie Hall as an inspiration for Appropriate Behavior and we can see it in the fact that both films examine the beginnings and endings of a relationship, not privileging either storyline.) The music is entirely apt, a mix of indie rock combined with the original score of former Breeders bass player Josephine Wiggs.
Desiree Akhavan is clearly a talent to watch. It will be interesting to see what she does when she’s given more money to work with — I can’t help but wish that whatever it is it’s not too much more. She’s shown a lot of ingenuity in creating something beautiful with not a lot of cash, probably from her years of co-writing and producing the web series, The Slope (a comedy about “superficial, homophobic lesbians” made with Ingrid Jungermann). I’m also glad that she’ll be joining Girls in the fourth season (her character a writer at the Iowa Workshop where Lena Dunham’s Hannah was heading at the end of season 3). I only hope that Akhavan manages to keep her vision and avoids getting absorbed into other people’s projects. I think she’s got a lot to say.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the just-released, limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.