"You're very pretty," a young woman tells a young man in the new comedy Appropriate Behavior. Shirin (Desiree Akhavan), the film's broad-shouldered bisexual heroine stares down Henry (James Bristow), a curly-haired stand-up comic/folksinger who blushes at her attention. Dimples appear within his unshaven square jawline so that his rough masculine features seem almost demure. This meet-cute is so unusual--with sexual signals crisscrossing the screen--that I didn't know where to look. But I couldn't look away.
Appropriate Behavior smashes through dating decorum like no other rom-com I can think of. Shirin, herself an androgynous beauty, calls herself "bisexual" yet every time she tries to move forward onto a new love object, flashbacks from her broken relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) interfere--as if confirming true desire, her gayness. Shirin cannot escape her polyamorous tendencies. She's young and alive, and her liveliness and personal honesty makes her an original.
Shirin also recalls a John Waters character. "I hate a lot of things, too," she says to Maxine, the stone butch lesbian she first meets, insults, and seduces at a Brooklyn New Year's Eve party. Writer, director, actress Desiree Akhavan plays Shirin, daughter from a family of immigrant Iranian professionals, with charming impudence that is no doubt born of privilege but it also results from cultural changes influenced by Waters' trailblazing social comedies (Desperate Living, Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos, etc.) where outre behavior overcame the restrictive late-20th century social customs.
Akhavan is neither an outcast nor a radical. Shy about coming out to her parents, she lives in a world that mostly accepts her difference even when she feels she doesn't quite fit in. ("You can be rough with me," she tells that dimply male conquest. And a scene with a couple swingers she meets in a bar offers a long pause as Shirin figures out her own conflicts and theirs). Waters' grassroots rebels brazened past such self-awareness--which was part of their wild and liberating exhilaration. Shirin represents a more conventional adventurousness even within the Brooklyn bohemia and tolerant suburban middle-class worlds she's stuck between.
By updating the legacy of a Waters heroine, this tall, smart-alecky androgyne -- who at times resembles Freddie Mercury, the young Steven Tyler, and the French New Wave siren Bernadette LaFont -- makes the cross-currents of contemporary gayness exciting. This could be Akhavan's personally-felt mission; surely no other immigrant-offspring film or male-privilege saga has dared her candor. The closest equivalents came from two of last year's most surprising movies: the utterly charming heterosexual dating film Obvious Child by Gillian Robespierre (starring Jenny Slate) and the surprisingly sensitive A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour, a mixed-genre vampire film that dealt with moral confusion among Tehran's privileged urban youth.
These movies cross genre signals the same way Shirin's romantic signals cross and confound. These women directors exhibit the influence of Woody Allen's Annie Hall (for some reason the template for young filmmakers trying to figure out their romantic quandaries), yet it's a good sign that Akhavan also intuits her John Waters roots, (Shirin also lucks into work as a film instructor at a children's community center where she teaches grade-schoolers self-expression, what might be called John Waters 101.) Appropriate Behavior is never obnoxious like the Alex Ross Perry film Listen Up, Philip -- which is mired in its own charmless white bourgeois heterosexual conceit.
In fact, Akhavan's humility and lack of arrogance produces a winning film and asserts infectious empathy. (After intuiting Waters, she can move on to studying Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes.) Maybe it requires a gay female filmmaker to break past the defensiveness apparent in men's identity struggles. Shirin reminisces about a flirtatious moment with Maxine where they mock the bigotry of the hip-hop term "No Homo" and claim their own personal lesbian pride. Just one of several hilarious moments that qualify Appropriate Behavior as a comic breakthrough.