What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Desiree Akhavan
Story by: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Halley Feiffer, Rebecca Henderson, Scott Adsit, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd
Produced by: Cecilia Frugiuele
Running Time (in min.): 90 minutes
Official Selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival
Watching Appropriate Behavior, the feature directorial debut of the gifted multihyphenate Desiree Akhavan (The Slope), for the second time, I was reminded of a famous B. Ruby Rich article from Out magazine in 1998. Rich asked then, “What’s a Good Gay Film?” and has proceeded to address the question more and more comprehensively, in LGBTQ-focused settings and otherwise, for more than two decades. Akhavan’s film, in which she also stars, does not accord with a few of those answers: it’s not formally post-modern, a la Rich’s famous “Homo Pomo,” nor does it compel the viewer through boldfaced political activism. Discussions about same-sex marriage or the lack of complex queer characters in the mainstream cinema are almost entirely absent. Rather, through a spare combination of facetious charm and a breakout lead performance, Rich’s question finds yet another answer. Here is a good, gay film – or rather, a great bisexual one.
I first saw the feature, which Akhavan wrote from a story codeveloped with Cecilia Frugiuele, when it had its World Premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival (under a slightly different title.) Since it first screened, Akhavan’s Shirin has been compared to a Lena Dunham character (not unfairly) by way of Junot Díaz (a stretch), but her flailing, socially strained Brooklynite protagonist would be as well suited to a universe constructed in tandem by Lisa Cholodenko and Alex Ross Perry. These predecessors, all clever, cynical, and skewing liberal, came too easily to my mind that first screening; and the hype surrounding Akhavan’s rising star (she’s poised to explode after her debut on Dunham’s Girls this January) at that time kept me from recognizing the authenticity and specialty of voice captured within.
Shirin, aimless and recently broken up from the temperamental Maxine (Rebecca Henderson, grounded and radiant), is spiraling downward into hostility and early-onset ennui. Acerbic to the point of cruelty – she uses, “I hate so many things,” as a pick-up line – she nonetheless cared deeply for the more self-certain, “gold star” lesbian lover, and her breakdown is as much about their relationship as Shirin’s to her own pansexuality. She’s been with men before and seeks to fill the void left by Maxine with them again. And as usual for dating sequences in cinematic Brooklyn (for a recent example, see Onur Tukel’s even more absurd montage in Summer of Blood), things aren’t going to go smoothly.
Not to mislead: Shirin is certain enough about her broad proclivities, but cultural pressure and the tragedy of love lost haunt her sex life. She refuses to come out to her Iranian parents, Nasrin (Anh Duong) and Mehrdad (journalist Hooman Majd, a pleasure), who have chosen to forsake most of their more elaborate traditions, except the ones that perpetuate homophobia. They attend dinner parties, too, where the danger of their daughter not marrying poses a distinct threat to their social comfort. Akhavan smartly plays these scenes, piquant and tense at the mere thought of a lesbian being present, for big laughs, as when Shirin and a vapid cousin rattle off passive-aggressive compliments.
These scenes, and others with the sublime Duong and Arian Moayed as her milquetoast brother Ali, highlight Akhavan’s endearing, almost ethnographic emphasis on Iranian-American tradition and acculturation (weeks later, I remain particularly taken with a montage of Shirin and Ali dissing each other to the alternate parent.) One recalls that the dramatic interplay between queer and Iranian identities was also the subject of Maryam Keshavarz’s 2011 Sundance breakout Circumstance, and Appropriate Behavior introduces the subject of sexual fluidity into the frame of family drama with similar focus. But where Keshavarz opted for the high thrills of melodrama, Akhavan settles on comic melancholy, to emotionally jarring but pleasurable effect.
One of the film’s strongest ironies is the frequent suggestion that our protagonist has a self-esteem problem, since we see that her creator/performer managed both to craft a feature and to make it emotionally rich, engaging, and well-paced. That feat has earned her appropriate accolades, including the Screenwriting Prize at the 2014 OutFest and, most recently, a nomination for Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. A film debut takes hard work and patience, as we all know, but confidence is also essential – and in Akhavan’s multiple positions on the project, demonstrated clearly. All one can do now is wait to see where her gifts take her.
In fact, Akhavan’s rise, as a female, LGBTQ director of color – a trifecta of underrepresentation in American cinema – could not be more perfectly timed: the growing success of African-American filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s third feature, Selma, and activism-oriented Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, have (once again) demonstrated both the criminal absence and desperate need for Hollywood-level studio projects shepherded by female and non-European-descended filmmakers.
I wrote about this issue in the Ethnic and Third World Review of Literature in reference to Rich’s book New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, and concluded with a list of filmmakers whose work demands critical consideration. In 2014 alone, the debut features of Akhavan, Eliza Hittman, Josephine Decker, and Ana Lily Amirpour, and short-length works by the likes of Frances Bodomo, Janicza Bravo, and Jodie Mack, among so many (many) others, proved my list was instantly arcane. Each and every one of these filmmakers has narrative and managerial skills of which even a small jolt would be a boon to work made in Hollywood or anywhere else. For proof, you might want to start with Appropriate Behavior, which debuts on VOD and in theaters January 16 in select cities via Gravitas Ventures.