One kind of important function of the comedy film that I’ve most unusually had to teach myself is to laugh at jokes without overanalyzing them the way we would more serious films. That’s not to suggest laughing without thinking, something the Todd Phillips’ and Dennis Dugan’s of the world would prefer. I simply mean not being in such an upright cinephile’s disposition to deny comedy’s most straightforward charms. Towards the end of Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan makes an almost defensive claim for this. “Farts are funny.” Akhavan doesn’t make the mistake of leaning on the cheap joke outside its primary juvenile showcase, but as with many other instances in her film, she doesn’t deny the humor that’s inherently there.
It doesn’t take very long to realize the comic tenor Appropriate Behavior is going for, a big bronze dildo practically spelling it out for us in bold letters just before the ironic title appears onscreen. Writer/Director Desiree Akhavan stars as Shirin, an Iranian-American who starts out the film breaking up with her girlfriend Maxine, an out and independent vanilla lesbian who seems like she’ll be an afterthought at the start. However, as Shirin makes several sexual and profession attempts to move forward, we’re drawn back Annie Hall style into the unlikely genesis and uneasy dissolution of her relationship with Maxine (wonderfully sincere Rebecca Henderson).
In place of Woody Allen’s counter-intuitively neurotic confidence is Akhavan’s less trademark-able, but nevertheless refreshing bluntness. Fart jokes are one thing, but most would caution against joking about Persian culture and still ambiguous sexuality the way Akhavan does without apology, but also surprisingly without offense. She’s certainly not shy of claiming her heritage and orientation as vestiges of humor (“They only hired me because they wanted someone middle eastern looking. The new girl’s so Syrian”), though Shirin is hardly as confident in both matters. It’s an elegant way of conveying the dissonance of where she comes from and where she’s going, particularly at a Persian celebration where she’s afraid to reveal Maxine as her girlfriend for obvious cultural and personal reasons. Her parents seem to display a kind acceptance before revealing the suppressive attitudes denying many LGBT individuals the freedom of moving forward. Ahn Duong has some particularly piercing moments as Shirin’s mother.
It’s particularly refreshing to see a film that allows for commentary on the unique condescension bisexuals get even from within the LGBT community. By the time she’s hit with the two presumptuous phrases no bisexual wants to hear, we’ve been comfortably convinced of Shirin’s genuine hold of her sexuality through a number of hilariously embarrassing sexual encounters. A brief OKCupid hookup only catapults Shirin passionately back to an intense lovemaking session with Maxine, a moment which almost single-handedly validates a romance we’d already been conditioned to believe was doomed to failure. Later on a pretty superbly shot comic set piece involving a threesome seems played primarily well-earned laughs, but takes a tacitly tragic turn when her place in that relationship is revealed to be entirely extraneous.
The film works in so many refreshing musings on certain types that it occasionally falls a bit short of filling out characters. While a closeness and care for Maxine is conveyed, her sense of self-confident independence almost robs her of being filled out with flaws. The abrupt break of their relationship comes more from an impasse of circumstances than a dissonance of identities, and by this point we’ve gone from thinking them doomed to failure to rooting for a compromise that may never come, or at least not in the totally absolving way Shirin hopes. The diverging paths of the two almost recall the platonic relationship drama of last year’s Frances Ha, though while that film focused on reevaluating one’s dreams and goals, Appropriate Behavior is refreshingly willing to admit Shirin isn’t ready to tackle them until she’s solidified the basics of who she is.
Akhavan’s Bushwick saga never becomes quite as serious as Greta Gerwig’s still ever lighthearted Williamsburg adventure, allowing for some riotous bits of lunacy. That’s clear enough when 30 Rock‘s Scott Adsit arrives as a negligent stoner father who keeps Shirin kinda-sorta employed. Even funnier is the art house proficiency of Shirin’s competing children’s film studies teacher, Tibet (Rosalie Lowe). There’s enough to assume it of a straight comic branding akin to Obvious Child, another charming Brooklyn screencap of a 20s girl in everyday crisis utilizing a more typical rom-com style. However Appropriate Behavior never neglects either snappy comedy or cinematic language enough to be firmly one thing, allowing itself to be hilarious in all the ways it knows how.