Appropriate Behavior: Sundance Review

Appropriate Behavior Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Appropriate Behavior Sundance Film Still - H 2014

The promise of fresh cultural perspectives gives way to a more amorphous slice of contemporary romantic angst comedy.

In her debut feature, premiering in Sundance's Next section, Desiree Akhavan plays an Iranian-American woman attempting to bounce back from a failed gay relationship.

The central character played with deadpan insouciance and minimal dramatic heft by writer-director Desiree Akhavan in Appropriate Behavior at one point makes a telling reference to Sex and the City. But it’s Lena Dunham’s dyspeptic next-generation response to that show, Girls, that inevitably comes to mind while watching this ambling identity comedy about a young bisexual Iranian-American woman in the desultory hipster playground of Brooklyn. Sifting the pieces of a broken lesbian relationship, the slender, seemingly autobiographical film has its share of neurotic charms and funny one-liners, but it’s too tentative about digging into its identity conflicts -- sexual or cultural.

Akhavan is known chiefly as co-creator and star (with Ingrid Jungermann) of The Slope, a queer-culty web series about “superficial, homophobic lesbians” in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. And while her first feature lifts its flashback-laden assembly from Annie Hall (a bookstore scene is a direct homage), it’s perhaps not surprising that it remains tethered to the unambitious structural template and narrative choppiness of episodic television.

This might be an opportune point to confess that while Dunham’s observational acuity and unflinching fearlessness set Girls apart, I’m generally over the wave of social comedies about solipsistic twenty- or thirty-somethings living in their bubble of ironic self-awareness. However, audiences happy to share that space will no doubt be more forgiving, encouraged by the fact that Akhavan’s screen alter ego, Shirin, is a likable character who’s both exasperating and easy to be around.

The movie opens with Shirin moving out of the apartment she’s been sharing with her girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), half-heartedly keeping her strap-on as a souvenir. “We were an ‘It’ couple,” she whines to her friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer), the stock wryly amusing sidekick. “I really want to eat my feelings now.” Shirin moves into a shabby apartment with a pair of pretentious artists, and through Crystal’s pothead friend Ken (30 Rock’s Scott Adsit), she gets a job teaching an after-school filmmaking program for 5-year-olds.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2014

While Akhavan’s skill at shaping the comedy could stand some refinement, that thread does combine amusing, environment-specific digs at creative parenting and film-culture consumption, notably when the tykes in the advanced class prepare a shot-for-shot remake of scenes from The Birds.

But the primary focus is looking back and making sense of the relationship with Maxine, whose firm grasp of her sexuality constantly chafes against Shirin’s tentative tenancy in the gay community. The glaring problem is that she’s not out to her family, and her inability to share her personal life with them is exacerbated by sibling rivalry as her over-achieving doctor brother (Arian Moayed) moves toward marriage.

However, Shirin’s parents (Anh Duong and Hooman Majd) seem so impossibly sophisticated, beautiful and evolved that it rings false when they miss the obvious nature of their daughter’s “friendship” with Maxine. Their choice not to acknowledge something staring them in the face may partly be the point, but it’s an unsatisfying one when comedy demands that friction should generate sparks. And while Akhavan gets a pass because she’s commenting on her own ethnic background, some of the scenes involving Iranian family gatherings border on simplistic condescension.

The real trouble, though, is writing that rarely probes beneath the surface. There are appealingly goofy comedy-of-awkwardness moments and sweet exchanges with Maxine, enhanced by Henderson’s sensitive performance. The recap of their meeting on a stoop during a breather from a New Year’s Eve party is especially lovely. And some of the dialogue is sharp: “What is up with your passive disinterest in everything?” snaps Shirin at a stoned date defined by his beard and tattoos. “Seriously, what happened at Wesleyan that did this to you?” But while Akhavan is comfortable in light mode, she’s unconvincing when required to raise the emotional temperature.

VIDEO: 10 Moments That Rocked the Sundance Film Festival

Many of Shirin’s clumsy attempts to regain her footing solo or win back Maxine -- a website sex hookup, a fizzled three-way, a disruptive visit to a gay rights discussion group, a lingerie shopping trip -- are funny. But they don’t go far enough in terms of defining the character or any self-knowledge she has acquired. While her pit stops frequently suggest a bi-now/gay-later woman destined to shed that denial, the story’s soft resolution merely settles for a vaguely consolatory “she’ll-be-fine” shot as a cue to the standard closing blast of whimsical indie rock.

Technically, the film is on the modest side, and feels paper-thin even at just under 90 minutes. It’s enjoyable but weightless.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Cast: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, Arian Moayed, Hooman Majd, Scott Adsit, Justine Cotsanos, Chris Baker, Robin Rikoon, Aimee Mullins

Production company: Parkville Pictures

Director-screenwriter: Desiree Akhavan

Producer: Cecilia Frugiuele

Executive producers: Oliver Kaempfer, Hugo Kaempfer, Lucas Kaempfer, Katie Mustard

Director of photography: Chris Teague

Production designer: Miren Maranon

Music: Josephine Wiggs

Costume designer: Sarah Maiorino

Editor: Sara Shaw

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 86 minutes.