In LGBT cinema — all cinema, really, but particularly so in this genre — there is a certain combination of words that can easily spell disaster for any production: “Written, directed by and starring.” Especially on a freshman attempt, a single person commanding three key roles can be toxic. Vanity, inexperience, self-indulgence — any number of factors can reduce a good idea or witty script into subpar dreck.
Not so with Appropriate Behavior (). Desiree Akhavan, in a stunning debut, wrote, directed and starred in her first film, and the result is a feature bursting with humor, interesting characters and enough charm to keep you hooked through its ninety-minute runtime. Akhavan stars as Shirin, the closeted, bisexual daughter of Iranian immigrants. The film opens on her breakup with partner Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), before following her as she meanders through the months that follow, love-sick, vengeful, resurgent and everything in between, interwoven with flashbacks to highlights of her relationship.
Akhavan has surrounded herself with competent actors — most notably Scott Adsit (30 Rock) — with little waste in terms of the people filling her frame. Every character feels simultaneously real and stereotypical: the artsy best friend, the over-achieving older brother who’s Shirin’s antithesis, the open, slightly butch and proud former lover, the various Brooklyn natives who are all differing shades of hipster. All, though, are fleshed out, even seemingly inconsequential characters, such as the slightly overbearing lingerie sales assistant who offers support — both literal and emotional — to Shirin while bra shopping. She’s on screen for a few minutes, but her character has depth beyond.
It’s Akhavan herself who deserves the praise heaped upon her during the film’s festival run. Her character is awkward, insecure, incompetent, but more than capable of being sexy and confident when the mood calls — which it does, the highlight being a painfully awkward threesome. Her personal pity party following the initial breakup would be grating if Akhavan weren’t so likable — you’ll want to shake her and tell her to grow up (as does her mother), but that’s probably the point.
Yes, the whole thing does feel a little Girls-esque — indeed, Akhavan guest stars as a writing student on HBO’s fourth series. There’s not much here that hasn’t been done before in other rom coms, particularly those set in New York, especially those in the artsy borough of Brooklyn. Still, even as a first effort, even with Akhavan writing, starring and directing (and yes, she does dip slightly into self-indulgence, but we’ll forgive it), and even with a body of work that’s similar in tone to compete with, Appropriate Behavior succeeds — and brilliantly so.
Reel Affirmations presents Appropriate Behavior in two screenings on Friday, March 20, at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., at the Human Rights Campaign, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Tickets are $10 for general admission or $25 for VIP including one cocktail, one popcorn and special seating. In addition, a chef’s tasting will follow the 7 p.m. screening courtesy of Tasteful Creations from Chef B. Call 202-682-2245 or visit reelaffirmations.org.
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