It would probably be horribly reductive to describe Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior” as a lesbian Persian-American “Girls” knockoff, but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, either. A debut feature from the writer-director-star, this tart, sexually frank portrait of a disintegrating relationship — and its long, bitter aftermath — packs plenty of punch in its best scenes, but it also frequently tests audience patience with its relentless deadpan affectlessness and insistence on leaving no Brooklyn cliche unmined. Pic should be a natural for future festival play all the same, and its auteur ought to be well worth watching once she starts to find her own voice.
Structured much like “Annie Hall” minus the fourth-wall-smashing and animated interludes, “Appropriate Behavior” begins with protagonist Shirin (Akhavan) storming out of the apartment of her first girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and proceeds to fill in the history of the relationship in non-chronological vignettes. Blessed with a skewed wit that can sometimes tip into wild social dysfunction, and a cynicism that verges on anhedonia, Shirin heads out on the rebound, her progress complicated by willful lack of employment and a reluctance to tell her loving and supportive, yet traditional, Iranian family that she is bisexual.
Moving from tony Park Slope to a slightly-less-tony Bushwick, Shirin navigates a neighborhood/job market/dating scene filled with wordless Hassids, pot-smoking brokers, comedy folk singers, conceptual sandcastle artists, schoolchildren named Groucho and schoolteachers named Tibet. Bratty, prickly and curt, Shirin can be a difficult character to like, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but she’s also a character without much direction or motivation: a woman with many opinions but few interests, plenty of gripes but few pressing problems. In spite of some half-hearted attempts to get Maxine back, or else get back at her, Shirin’s lack of any clear objectives gives the film an inertia that the frequent flashbacks to little to correct.
On a certain level, comparisons between Akhavan’s Shirin and Lena Dunham’s similarly wry, motormouthed Hannah may seem facile, less the result of any specific unoriginality on Akhavan’s part than Dunham’s ownership of that particular archetype, much as any neurotic, lovelorn middle-aged New York intellectual will inevitably draw comparisons to Woody Allen. Yet “Appropriate Behavior” is at its least inspired when it hews most closely to Dunham’s model; Shirin’s hipper-than-thou quips and one-liners are almost always aimed at the lowest-hanging fruit, and too often miss even those easy marks.
When she drops the shtick, however, Akhavan can be very funny — “I think we were an ‘it’ couple,” she tells bestie Crystal (Halley Feiffer) early on, then continually interrupts her as she tries to suggest otherwise — and a few standout scenes exhibit her serious potential as a filmmaker. A sequence involving an attempted date with a gay-rights lawyer is so spectacularly ill-fated from start to finish that audience reaction evolves from laughter to fingers-over-eyes mortification and back again, each escalation deftly timed and structured. This is followed by a nearly wordless, and non-gratuitously explicit, threesome sex scene that subtly conveys Shirin’s out-of-her-element discomfort entirely through the blocking of the actors, without resorting to easy jokes or dramatic breakdowns.
Tech credits and key performances — including the director’s own — are all reasonably solid, and locations are assiduously scouted.