Desiree Akhavan Talks “Appropriate Behavior”

“In my experience, life is always slipping back and forth between comedic farce and tragic melodrama, so I appreciate it when films get the balance right and make it feel truthful.” This is Desiree Akhavan’s formula for making insightful, and wonderfully witty, drama, from the award winning web series The Slope to her most recent venture, her first full-length feature entitled Appropriate Behavior.

Hailed by Vanity Fair as one of the top 10 anticipated films of Sundance 2014, Appropriate Behavior is the future of queer cinema. It engages with themes associated with queer narratives of “coming out” and social and political marginalization without hyperbolic exaggeration, or melodramatic tragedy afflicting one or more of the film’s characters (“complimented’ unconditionally by nauseating soundtracks). Maybe this is a product of what Akhavan describes as her “crude, borderline-disgusting humor,” such that there’s no unnecessary lingering upon or stretching of provocative, or thought-provoking, moments. It is a truly fantastic film, one that I want to watch on repeat in order to memorize all of the one-line zingers and sardonic body expressions. Akhavan is like Lena Dunham, creating a very particular landscape of contemporary Brooklyn, if Dunham were an Iranian-American bisexual woman.

While I read a queer version of Girls in Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan cites Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, “which dances back and forth between past and present,” as her cinematic inspiration for the film’s structure. We are introduced to Akhavan’s character, Shirin, as she, with dildo-dangling-from-harness in hand, leaves despondently from her Park Slope apartment she shared with her now ex, Max, out into the streets of Brooklyn, to parts unknown. (She soon settles in Bushwick, in the notoriously “McKibbon Lofts,” which are comprised of studio lofts that have been individually segmented by Millennial hipsters into a half-dozen cubby holes per studio for the young ones to “live” in.) The narrative of the plot does juxtapose moments of the past—memories of both good and bad times with Max—with those of the present, in which Shirin is trying to figure out how to move on from her breakup as well as come out to her family. Not only is Shirin trying to psychological and emotionally remedy these aspects of her life, she’s also, like many of her generation, trying to secure a decent paying, but not soul-crushing, form of employment, in addition to navigating the heady terrain of dating in NYC. (The failed date with a woman that then turns into a threesome with a completely separate married couple is bold for its unabashed addressing of stereotypes about bisexuals.)

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After a press screening last Friday, which was the first occasion Akhavan actually viewed her completed project, I was able to chat with her about the film and its making. Why the title Appropriate Behavior—for whom? Or, in regard to what? I feel the title can modify a lot of subjects, from Shirin’s character to the typical arc of the “coming out” narrative.
Desiree Akhavan: The title refers to our protagonist’s failure to find herself on the right side of the line in any realm. With family, romantic partners and even work, by simply being herself she will always be inappropriate.

AE: Shirin is negotiating multiple minority identity positions. How do you feel this was expressed through the narrative of the plot, both in how Shirin behaved and, more pointedly, how others treated her?
DA: We specifically chose not to play up Shirin’s “multiple identity positions” in the plot or how people treated her because I wanted to show that this is a woman who is more than the minorities she was born into. She’s not a victim of her circumstances and to depict her as a symbol for the plight of Middle Eastern LGBT women everywhere would have been disingenuous.

AE: Was the latter manifested in the threesome scene, in order to tackle the misconception that all bisexuals want all the time are threesomes?
DA: Not at all—I didn’t even know that was a stereotype about bisexuals. None of the scenes in the film were about battling misconceptions or making political statements.

AE: Shirin and Max have a lot of differences—sexual, political, ethnic and cultural. Was it the amalgam of differences that was insurmountable? Was it Max just not understanding Shirin’s own temporality regarding coming out to her family? Or was the breaking point simply the fact that Max turned frigid?
DA: This is one of those questions that’s up to the viewer to decide for themselves. Personally, I think the factors you list are symptoms of a larger problem which is that they are not suited for one another. I always thought that the spontaneity and recklessness that attracted Maxine to Shirin in the first place is the very thing that she comes to resent. Also, Shirin is a kid in so many ways and I think Maxine doesn’t have the patience to deal with those growing pains.

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AE: How autobiographical is this film? How did you address concerns about representing rather than encapsulating or “speaking for,” say, bisexuality, or Persian culture, on film?
DA: The film is inspired by my experiences, but isn’t based on events that took place. As for concerns of encapsulating cultures, the story is about one woman who happens to be bisexual and Iranian- I never even entertained the idea that I would be representing anyone but myself.

AE: While on the surface, it may seem counterintuitive or even a moot point for Shirin to come out after her breakup. Can you speak to this faulty logic, or why one can “come out” regardless of her relationship status?
DA: To me it made perfect sense because she had nothing left to lose.

AE: How do you understand Shirin’s mother’s response to her saying, “Mom, I’m a little bit gay”?
DA: I understood the mother to be saying “You’re not gay. I know you better than you know yourself. You’re just dumb and confused. Now shut up.”

AE: This film provided a fantastic lens into queer Brooklyn culture; I mean, referring to the McKibbon Lofts (home of hipster millennials, where you’ll find one person studios crammed with eight college kids) as “refugee camps” was so spot on! What did you want to say about queer Brooklyn culture, perhaps specifically in contrast with how culture is represented in, say, HBO’s Girls?
DA: I was not trying to say something in response to anyone else’s work. This is just Brooklyn as I experienced it—everyone sees things differently.

AE: Sundance is next for Appropriate Behavior—when can audiences expect to see it in a theater near them?
DA: As soon as I figure that out, I’ll let you know!

Appropriate Behavior is playing at Sundance January 18-24.