Friday 6 March 2015

"Appropriate Behaviour" (DT 06/03/15)

Appropriate Behaviour ***

Dir: Desiree Akhavan. Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Scott Adsit. 15 cert, 86 min

The Brooklyn-set romcom Appropriate Behaviour opens in the manner of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, with its protagonist ruefully picking over a failed relationship; it will conclude with a lift from Stardust Memories, with a fleeting moment of serendipity on a subway train. What’s different is the perspective, which for once isn’t that of some hunched Woody wannabe kvetching his way into premature middle age. Meet, instead, Desiree Akhavan, tall, female, bisexual, Iranian-American: one of several young writer-directors who’ve reclaimed the streets of New York since Allen packed up his altogether fustier sexual politics and set off on his European tour.

Akhavan’s currently visible on TV’s Girls, and some of the potshots she takes at the East Coast creative scene in this, her feature debut, have a Lena Dunham-y ring: rebounding from one awkward encounter to the next, Akhavan’s lovelorn teacher Shirin encounters both artists going through a “sandcastle-slash-found object” phase and folk rock/stand-up hybrid acts. Also very Dunham-ish: one excruciating threesome in which no-one seems to be getting what they signed up for. That’s your twenties, Akhavan concludes, from the relative comfort of her early thirties – a lot of experimentation and drift, with no guarantee of a satisfying outcome.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where Shirin’s drift stops and the film’s begins. Akhavan’s background – she co-created the webseries The Slope – shows through in a baggily episodic structure. Shirin’s shrugging attempts to come out to her parents (Anh Duong and Hooman Majd) – hardly hardliners, rather beacons of comfortable, Westernised tolerance – suggests a reluctance to press the issue of sexual identity too hard. With the narrative stakes perilously low, the would-be crowdpleasing finale – involving schoolchildren dressed up as farting zombies – falls somewhere between ramshackle and a little desperate.

Still, even that sequence retains an appreciably hand-turned feel, and many of the preceding skits are genuinely funny: Shirin’s run-in with a snippy lingerie saleswoman rings true, and I liked her quizzical interactions with a stoner colleague, played by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit – voice of Big Hero 6’s Baymax, and therefore pretty much the best thing in movies right now. The radical claims being made for Appropriate Behaviour feel overstated: it’s another indie premised on the fixing-up of a broken heart, and its relentless snark proves mildly wearying. It’s Akhavan’s presence that elevates it above a crowded field. Her film’s a little bit different from the norm, and that – for now – is promising enough.

Appropriate Behaviour opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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