In a paper thin story about a Persian bisexual twentysomething living in Brooklyn, the walkways and warehouses of which are redolent with hipster sex and kombucha, Appropriate Behavior doesn't achieve much more (visually or thematically) than your standard episode of Girls.
Though it probes some unique questions about cultural and sexual identity, and benefits from the acerbic presence of its writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan, the film probably won't appeal to or resonate with a broad audience. But for those enlightened few engaged in this subset of geocultural discourse, it opens Friday exclusively at the Capitol Theatre.
Shirin is a young Iranian woman torn between the traditional values of her family and the wispy, progressive postures of her Bushwick/Park Slope cohort. She self-identifies as a bisexual, and at the film's outset, she's breaking up with her longtime girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) who's outraged, in large part, because Shirin won't come out to her parents, at least not explicitly.
To eliminate her pain — "I want to eat my feelings," Shirin says in an early scene — and to get back at Maxine, she begins an adventurous, pansexual odyssey replete with threesomes, OKCupid hookups and tequila. Meantime, she quits her job, moves into a "less expensive" artsy loft and begins teaching an infrequent after school film program for kindergartners. In one of the film's oddest, most well-written scenes, she buys new underwear, a kind of personal triumph.
At only 85 minutes, it's a slim product. And though much of the film focuses, via flashback, on the rise and fall of Shirin-and-Maxine, the tension between Shirin and her family — her brother, a doctor, intends to propose to an ethnically acceptable pediatric burn specialist, to make matters worse — is never as taut or as simmering as it ought to be.
Perhaps this is because Appropriate Behavior is billed as a comedy. 30 Rock's Scott Adsit appears in a small role, perhaps to get us on board with the sought-after tone. But the story here is heavy and very sad. It's the stuff of deep and inexorable personal torment. In the film's opening shot, Shirin is crying on the subway, gazing out (at her reflection?).
Understanding, of course, that often the only way to deal with burdens like these is to laugh about them, turning Appropriate Behavior into something that resembles a piece about self-aware twentysomething solipsism in Brooklyn — barf — seems to undermine the turmoil beneath the surface.
This is Akhavan's film debut, after creating a web series called The Slope — tagline: Superficial, Homophobic Lesbians." Though she's not quite Lena Dunham's equal in terms of observational prowess, she's a novel and potentially very strong voice on the indie circuit.