Because Desiree Akhavan has been cast in a recurring role on the new season of Girls, her visibility and pop-culture credentials are about to be certified in a new way. And good for her. But this 30-year-old writer/director/actress had already staked out her position in the Voice of a Young Generation sweepstakes as creator of the web series The Slope and the indie feature Appropriate Behavior, a success at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Maybe Girls needs her more than she needs Girls.
Now Appropriate Behavior opens for its regular run, after garnering a nomination for Best First Screenplay in the Independent Spirit Awards. (Which raises the question: Why is an actual teeny-tiny indie like this competing against obviously bigger films such as Birdman and Selma? The Spirit awards have always been kooky that way.) Akhavan plays Shirin, a Brooklynite trying to recover from a breakup with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). A millennial named Maxine? All right, it’s sort of retro, so we’ll let it pass. We see Maxine mostly in flashback, which allows us to deduce that maybe these two weren’t particularly well-matched to begin with. Shirin tries to move on with a variety of bisexual encounters and a new job teaching filmmaking to a group of 5-year-olds. The film’s indie-hipster-Brooklyn world is easy enough to take, and Akhavan’s observations are amusing if not earthshaking.
What seems most promising about Akhavan’s directing talent is her very specific eye. There’s no reason a scene in a lingerie store should be distinctive, but the interplay among Shirin, pal Crystal (a funny Halley Feiffer), and a touchy-feely store manager culminates in a wonderfully odd, wordless exchange of awkward glances. And the whole movie is set within Shirin’s Iranian-American community, complete with an overachieving older brother and unusual party customs. When Akhavan shows partygoers leaping over an open flame as part of a Persian ceremony, she veers close to My Big Fat Greek Wedding territory. Shirin’s still in the closet to her nice-but-traditional parents, so that hurdle gives the movie some conventional suspense. These storytelling devices long predate Akhavan’s immediate influences, whether we’re talking about Girls or ’70s-era Woody Allen. Despite the nudity and a scene involving a threesome (Shirin is tri-curious, apparently), Appropriate Behavior really isn’t as edgy as it might appear.
APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR Opens Fri., Jan. 16 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 90 minutes.