“Appropriate Behavior” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21 at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. R, 1:30, three stars out of four.
Desiree Akhavan’s debut feature “Appropriate Behavior” intertwines a couple of hot-button issues — gay rights and the rights of women in Middle Eastern cultures. But anyone expecting a somber “message” film about gay rights are 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 as writer, director and star. 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. (And, in fact, Akhavan will appear on the new season of HBO’s “Girls.”)
But the key comparison is that these are both films by young women filmmakers who already seemed 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. We also see her relationship with her Iranian-American family, who don’t know she’s bisexual.
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. “Appropriate Behavior” is a sparkling debut for Akhavan that promises great things ahead.