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Promising Talent Falls Victim To Routine in 'Appropriate Behavior'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 16, 2015 5:10PM

Photo: © 2015 Appropriate Behavior

There's a lot of buzz about Desiree Akhavan, who has joined the cast of Lena Dunham's Girls and is up for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, but based on Appropriate Behavior it's hard to see what all the fuss is about.

It's not that Akhavan isn't talented...she is. But in this debut feature, which she wrote, directed and starred in, she comes across as just the latest in a wave of dismayingly similar independent filmmakers. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: a directionless young character, bone-dry humor, a vaguely hipster urban backdrop, frank sexuality, and low-energy, stylistically indifferent filmmaking.

Appropriate Behavior is well acted, clearly personal, and periodically amusing, but somehow it makes the story of an alluring, bisexual Iranian-American woman going through a tumultuous breakup while hiding her sexuality from her tradition-bound parents seem a bit drab. I blame the current low-budget indie role models Akhavan seems to be following. There isn't a definitive label to apply here, though filmmakers associated with the so-called "mumblecore" and micro cinema movements (the Duplass Brothers, Joe Swanberg, Alex Ross Perry, Andrew Bujalski) are easy examples. But so is a veteran like Noah Baumbach with his grating, dour Greenberg.

It's not that I dislike all these movies either. I enjoyed Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, and a few others. But what once seemed on-the-fly and fresh now seems formulaic and lazy. A new age of small, mobile screen aesthetics has made the bland visual style of many of these movies commonplace. Oh, what I would give to see a low-budget, indie relationship flick where a few unusual angles and a goddamned tripod were employed!

Akhavan (who could be part of some cross-continental sisterhood with Julia Roberts and Famke Janssen) plays Shirin, recently separated from her live-in girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Shirin obsesses over how to win her back, but most of the scenes between the young lovers are brittle and combative, even in flashbacks to their early courtship. Since we don't sense much magnetism or even likability in Maxine, Shirin's attempts to launch new relationships with men and women steal the focus. One of these is quite good: a threesome that becomes horribly awkward as she finds herself repelled by the man physically while bonding with the woman far beyond the sex. It's a good scene that feels honest and a little new in its emotional dynamics.

The same can't be said for Shirin's other flirtations and encounters, which seem there simply to show she is out there looking. There are small laughs here and there, and Akhavan is a good enough actress to engender some empathy, but she hasn't written a character we can truly care about. Shirin is lonely but seemingly surrounded by friends and potential new mates, and she is heartbroken over a relationship portrayed mainly as dismal. Even the cultural barriers that keep her in the closet lack drama, as her parents are by no means extremists, or even unforgiving.

The movie's best moments belong to Second City alumnus Scott Adsit (30 Rock) as a stoner dad who hires Shirin to teach filmmaking to kindergartners. Adsit brings a welcome, breezy absurdity to a movie intent on a heavier comedy of embarrassments.

Akhavan is new on the scene and the spotlight is shining brightly on her. Here's hoping it illuminates a path of her own, breaking away from a well-worn indie trail that seems less and less inspired with each step.

Appropriate Behavior. Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan. Starring Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson and Scott Adsit. 85 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, Jan. 16 in select cities (no Chicago theatrical dates announced) and via VOD.