Catching Up With Desiree Akhavan
By Chloe Fitzpatrick
Photos by Arthur Nazaryan
Last year, Ingrid Jungermann and Desiree Akhavan were celebrated in the Out100 list for creating The Slope, a web series centered around two “superficial, homophobic lesbians.” The show followed the rise and fall of their sweet, semi-functional and ultimately decaying relationship. At the end of the series, the couple splits and decides not to see each other for a while, leaving Akhavan’s character to ask, “Why did I even bother becoming a lesbian? Aren’t you supposed to be best friends forever? That’s what the girls from Sleater-Kinney did!”
After The Slope ladies went their separate creative ways, Jungerman created a new path for her character in a Slope spin-off F to 7th. Now Desiree Akhavan is preparing to reveal her post "break up" life with a new feature film, Appropriate Behavior, which is inspired by the web series and picks up where The Slope left off.
The movie is being produced by Parkville Pictures, a BAFTA-nominated production company based in London. One of the goals of Parkville Pictures is to present untold stories that transcend cultural and social boundaries—just one of the elements that makes Akhavan’s film so exciting.
Producer Cecilia Frugiuele, who has known Akhavan for some time, seems to be completely in awe of her. While I visited the set, I asked her why she wanted to be a part of creating this film, and her eyes lit up.
“I’m a big fan of Desiree. I love the way she puts herself on the screen and on the paper,” Frugiuele said of her long-time friend. “She just completely dives into the story, and I think that’s why it’s such a truthful and original voice. I really think that’s the hook. She’s the hook. Every odd situation and every odd encounter that really represents Brooklyn and being hip and cool in this part of town, she just delivers with a unique voice and it’s very fresh.”
Akhavan’s new character, Shirin, has just gotten out of a relationship and is trying to redefine herself and her life without her ex. She leaves sophisticated, grown-up Park Slope for a shared loft in Bushwick, comes out to her Persian family, and tries to gather life lessons from the memories of her relationship.
“I think the flashbacks of her relationships are very similar to The Slope,” Akhavan says. “But it also has the scope of a feature film, so we have the time to really invest in what draws them to each other and what pulls them apart.”
Akhavan, who was featured in Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Cinema," calls it a “modern-day Annie Hall,” in which the audience gets to re-live the relationship through the flashbacks in her mind. This retrospective look allows the character to learn from her mistakes and start over in her new life.
Starting over is actually a large theme of the film—and not just for its protagonist. Ken, a typical Park Slope dad played by Scott Adsit (30 Rock), is also shedding old skin in order to re-shape his identity in a new chapter of his life.
“I’m playing an aging hipster dad who used to be in finance but has rediscovered his Park Slope inner-child,” he explained. “He’s just quit his job and is taking care of the kids and getting high all day. But he’s a cool guy, he’s a nice guy. And he’s helping out our lead character and he kind of introduces her into a new world.”
Adsit caused a noticeable stir of enthusiasm among the cast and crew on the set, and he said that he was delighted to be involved in the project and wanted onboard as soon as he read the script.
“First of all, it’s very funny,” he said about the new project. “It’s about smart people and so it’s a smart script. And that really attracts me. And I liked the theme of this. It just has wonderful things to say about being human and addressing yourself and understanding yourself.”
Addressing and understanding one’s complete self—faults, complexities, and contradictions—seems to be a huge goal for both Desiree of The Slope and Shirin of Appropriate Behavior. One of the most intriguing and relatable facets of Akhavan’s characters is the way they skirt around the frightening and very adult commitment of claiming an identity. The film’s subtitle classifies Shirin as an “Ambiguously Ethnic Bi-Curious Romantic,” which seems to call attention to her reluctance to label herself.
Its not unlike her character in The Slope, a young woman who feels she can reserve the right to call her girlfriend “super dyke-y” and complain about the lack of queer programming on television, but does not want to be referred to as either lesbian or bisexual. She's extremely offended when her girlfriend makes trans-phobic remarks, but feels the need to define each lesbian she sees as either “top or bottom” depending on their masculinity/femininity levels. She is a constant contradiction straddling multiple worlds: gay and straight; closeted and out; politically correct and rude; sophisticated and immature; proud and homophobic. On top of all that, she is caught between the identity-seeking, mess-making spirit of a woman in her young twenties and the nested, secure nature of someone in their young thirties.
One of my favorite aspect of the series was the backdrop of Park Slope, an area of Brooklyn that's featured in each fantasy I have of hip, smart, perfect adulthood—juxtaposed by two characters who look like they fit in with this crowd, but are in actuality quite immature.
“Well, that’s the funny thing about adulthood,” Akhavan said to me. “I always thought that when I reached a certain age that I’d be above certain problems or petty issues. It turns out that that’s not how it is at all. The immaturity and the jealousy are just as strong. The stakes get higher.”
Identity is complicated, sexuality is complicated, and growing up is complicated and Appropriate Behavior seeks to take on all of these complexities in the framework of a feature-length film. Hopefully, audiences will be able learn from this young woman's mistakes and possibly triumphs.
For updates on this film project, visit its Facebook page.