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March 5, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterviewReview | by Francesco Cerniglia

Desiree Akhavan & Rebecca Henderson in Appropriate Behaviour

Despite a flurry of films and TV shows on the trials and tribulations of twenty-something women in New York City (Frances Ha, Girls, Tiny Furniture, Obvious Child, etc.), Appropriate Behaviour manages to stake its own unique claim on this film wave. This feat is down nearly entirely to Desiree Akhavan, the film’s writer, director and lead actress who manages to blend her own life experiences as a bisexual Iranian-American in the Big Apple facing break-ups and identity crises and evolving beyond this into a sharp, modern cinematic voice.

The film provides a funny, sexually frank, contemporary struggle to find romance and to stay on one’s own feet, while still tripping up on colliding cultures, sex toys, and behaviour that lives up to the title. Shot in just 18 days, Desiree Akhavan’s debut acts a loudspeaker, introducing the filmmaker to cinematic audiences as one to pay attention to. Yet she truly found cinema as her passion after failing to fit in with her fellow theatre students.

When I went to college, I never really made it into the theatre scene, I never got cast, my plays never got made, never made theatre friends. So I just sort of became this weird hermit-stoner. But one of my friends obsessed with film took me to this nearby college. She didn’t want to ride the bus alone, and she paid me back in weed. So I started going to this world cinema class and I fell in love hard, it really got me. I realized: this is everything I’ve wanted to do.

Unlike theatre, with film you don’t need the audience, you could make something in a bubble, you could hand craft something like animation in an editing room and have that just exist, and it’s not contingent on being cast in a play or being in a theatre company. So I started writing scripts and I did a year abroad in London where I met my producer for ‘Appropriate Behaviour’ and it’s all sort of run on from there.

Appropriate Behaviour follows Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) struggling to keep up with life through heart-wrenching break-ups, threesomes, closeted pressure and trying to teach moviemaking to six-year-old boys. While at the same time trying to work out her feelings and decipher what went wrong with Maxine, her ex-girlfriend and first real love, Shirin faces the need to impress her parents yet under the pressure of hiding her sexuality. Cook all of this together into the vibrant Brooklyn scene, and the anecdotes begin to tell themselves. However, as writer/director and lead actor in the film, Desiree is adamant to clarify that although the story is genuinely inspired by personal events, it can’t be considered autobiographical or taken at face value.

Desiree Akhavan in Appropriate Behaviour 2

The film itself is really personal, I threw in it everything I was dealing with at that moment, the break-up of my first serious relationship with a woman, the aftermath of coming out to my parents, but the film isn’t literally true to my life. I was not closeted, I didn’t come out like I did in the film, I didn’t chase after my ex post break up. For the sake of putting together a strong 90 minute narrative, it was about manufacturing moments through these scenes that were true to me and my heart, and creating an amplified crazy version of myself, a heightened version of my best and worst qualities, yet I don’t think it’s how I act in real life, at least I hope not.

The film starts off with Shirin storming out of her ex-girlfriend’s (Rebecca Henderson) apartment, dumping her old strap-on dildo in a bin on the street on the way out. We then proceed to piece together the puzzle of their relationship, from the first awkward flirtations to its bitter end, through non-chronological bits and pieces spliced throughout the film. Spurred on by romantic cynicism, her own arrested development and a healthy lack of boundaries, Shirin heads on to wrestle back control of her life, with some hiccups along the way. In between attempts to win back Maxine, she throws herself into rebounds and meets conceptual sandcastle artists, unruly schoolchildren, stoned financial brokers and someone called Tibet.

Shirin’s brother has a recent engagement to boast and a successful career in medicine to sit on while Shirin drifts from job to job, from a degree in journalism to afterschool teacher, and can’t even begin to face revealing her sexuality to her parents and break her image as the politically correct Persian daughter. Regardless of her downtrodden outlook and setbacks, the film itself never veers into pessimism or gloom. It comes off endearing even during Shirin’s first flirt with Maxine when she exclaims: “I hate so many things too!”

Recently named one of the top 25 young filmmakers to watch, it’s all coming together for Desiree, a director who always felt that filmmaking was “too ambitious and crazy” for her to ever break into.

It’s so funny, these honours always felt at arm’s length to me. Especially when I started grad school and tried to make films in general, it was always like being part of the kind of crowd that gets invested in their work at an early age, which wasn’t me. Films came late for me. My first love was theatre. I’ve been writing plays and performing since I was young. At 9, I wrote my first play, a sketch show – I made an advert for something called ‘vomlet’, the omelet made of vomit – I did those sorts of sketches all the time.

At 15, I wrote my first kind of serious play, a comedy about depression. I had been diagnosed with depression at like 13, and I let that marinate for a few years, obviously, before I wrote the play for a performance at school. The play was sort of in the same vein as this film. Like that comedy about your own depression, this is a comedy about coming out or a break up. You have to take the piss out of yourself, nothing is sacred to me, in terms of my dramatic experiences, everything seems worthy of mocking if I’m the butt of the joke, and I’m more than happy to be the butt of the joke. It deals with a serious subject matter but in a tongue in cheek way.

Desiree Akhavan & Halley Feiffer in Appropriate Behaviour

Without being overly groundbreaking storytelling, Akhavan’s film cuts her way into the crowd by siphoning her own unique voice. Beyond the barrel full of relatable struggles for every twenty-something, this is a story told through a culturally tense, wry and self-deprecating look at youth culture, family, sex, finding your feet, and relationships. The film also packs plenty of punches in its best scenes, none more so than its carefully constructed sex scenes, from its tender loving relationship moments, the cold messy rebound sex and an almost silent and wholly uncomfortable threesome portrayed as an awkward, yet very real affair rather than something that resorts to easy jokes.

I put a lot of effort into those sex scenes, I care a lot about how sex is depicted on film and I wanted to make something honest. I feel people gloss over the sex: they’re either incredibly smooth, effortless, simultaneous-orgasm types, or they’re clunky, awful, one-note and let’s get out of here as quickly as possible types, and when I began to become sexually active I was confused about why my experiences were not one or the other. I was so raised on television, everything I knew about life, love, kissing and fucking were all picked up on some episode of ‘Dawson’s Creek’, so I had to face the fact that I wasn’t equipped with the dialogue of all the shades of grey in between.

Also, I feel so much is communicated in sex, so when films montage it or show the greatest hits, it feels like a missed opportunity. You just showed us a banal conversation or a five minute silent scene on a bus but I couldn’t see them fuck? I could have learned so much about this couple and these people. When scenes do it beautifully, like ‘The Piano Teacher’ (2001), the visceral reaction I have when I see a well orchestrated sex scene is so much more efficient than any other film device, it’s more powerful than watching a murder or some explosion to me. Just look at Catherine Breillat’s work, what you see in the details, in that moment, there’s a before and an after, and you learn and feel so much from it.

Desiree believes the hybrids of cultures and influences she has taken on from her upbringing to her love for cinema, which is becoming more and more the standard in film, is ‘the future of making art.’ Commenting on the rise of Iranian-American artists, Desiree says her background has a large influence on her life.

Iranians are usually so rigid, like this is Iran, this is America, black-and-white, but of course our films are hybrids, a mash-up of all these elements. Just look at (Ana Lily Amanpour’s) ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ as a recent brilliant and successful example. When someone says a film is not Iranian enough, or not Western enough, which Iranians do all the time, is ridiculous. Like one time a fight broke out in a friend of mine’s screening because of that inability to let go of what the Iranian experience is.

Desiree Akhavan & Scott Adsit in Appropriate Behaviour

When other films would resort to revolving around one struggle, this film blends them all together. Appropriate Behaviour is not an LGBT film, nor an ethnic-centric film: it is simply a frank film bubbling with wry comments and contemporary observation on love. As Desiree said, “I think that if you have dramatic work in your life, like break-ups, jobs, sex, or just struggling to find your way, you’ve got to poke fun at it, you can’t slip into self-pity.

Besides a role in the new season of Lena Dunham’s HBO dramedy Girls to which Appropriate Behaviour has been lazily compared to (something Desiree calls ‘slightly sexist’), the talented filmmaker is also working on her own television series, a bisexual dating comedy in New York City, along with two potentials features and you bet we’ll be following her new endeavours in what looks like an exciting career ahead.

Appropriate Behaviour is now available in the UK on DVD and VOD

Oliver Smith