Sundance Film Festival: “Appropriate Behavior” is a sparkling debut comedy

AppropriateBehavior

Before the screening of her film “Appropriate Behavior” Tuesday at the Prospector Theatre, writer-director-star Desiree Akhavan was near tears. “I just wanted to be honest about things you’re not supposed to talk about in my world, or in Utah.”

But anyone expected a somber film about gay rights (Akhavan is lesbian) or women’s rights in the Middle East (Akhavan is Iranian-American) were firmly laid to rest in the opening scene, when Shirin (Akhavan) moves out of the apartment she and her ex-girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) once shared. She angrily takes a box that she had once given to Maxine as a present and throws it in a dumpster — a strap-on dildo.

It’s a funny intro, but illustrates the mix of easy laughs and intimate honesty that marks Akhavan’s accomplished debut. A co-creator of the web series “The Slope,” Akhavan has created a film that’s both a crowd-pleaser and nakedly personal. Comparisons are already being made to Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” and it’s true that there is some crossover in terms of tone and subject matter.

But the key comparison is that these are both films by young women filmmakers who already seem to know exactly what movies they wanted to make and how to make them. And both provide voices that we perhaps didn’t realize how badly the movies were missing.

The film alternates between Shirin’s attempt to move on with her life and flashbacks to her long, complicated romance with Maxine. A less assured filmmaker would make Maxine the bad guy, but Akhavan lets us see both sides of the relationship, especially Maxine’s discomfort as always being introduced as Shirin’s friends to her conservative (but funny and loving) Iranian parents.

Back in the present day, Shirin’s life appears to be in free fall, colliding in one unhappy romantic encounter after another, suffering through her day job teaching filmmaking to five-year-olds. The film is witty and sexy, but above all compassionate towards all its characters. And Akhavan doesn’t steer the film towards either of the obvious endings — a new love or a big coming-out speech to her parents — instead going for something more nuanced and affecting.

During the post-show Q&A, Akhavan said her own coming out to her parents was quite rough, but her parents have adjusted and fully support her artistic ambitions. Her father was uneasy about seeing “Appropriate Behavior” because of the nudity, but slipped into the screening at the last minute. And loved it.

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