On its face, writer-director-filmmaker Desiree Akhavan’s first film, Appropriate Behavior, is about common lesbian experiences: the struggle to come out, tussles with identity, and what happens when a relationship fails as a result. But as the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, the audience response happened just as often around the film’s examination of person as of place.
Shot and set in Brooklyn — largely in Park Slope and Bushwick — Appropriate Behavior follows Shirin (played by Akhavan), a Persian closeted lesbian living in Brooklyn, as she navigates a devastating break-up from her more confident, and out, girlfriend Maxine (played by Rebecca Henderson). As Shirin tries desperately to win Maxine back, we watch her maneuver the often ridiculous realities of various Brooklyn neighborhoods. There’s an absurd argument between Shirin and a shift manager at the Park Slope Food Coop. Shirin’s new roommates in Bushwick are, predictably, offbeat artists, who happened to have met at Occupy Chelsea (one of them inexplicably does “sandcastle art”). In Williamsburg, Dali mustaches and squid chest tattoos are everyday fashion pieces on the film’s minor characters.
Perhaps the strongest scenes satirize overzealous Park Slope parents. As Shirin struggles to teach a videography class to five-year-olds with names like Groucho, she competes with another teacher (named Tibet) who encourages her kids to make an actual shot-by-shot reenactment of The Birds.
Speaking to Bedford + Bowery at Sundance Sunday, Akhavan said that poking fun at Brooklyn was all about finding the right tone. “It was always dancing the fine line between: Are we becoming slapstick or is this grounded in truth? And can I defend this joke?” said Akhavan, whose deadpan, irreverent humor has been compared to both Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig.
Brooklyn is also central to some of the more serious questions of the film, however, notably of Shirin’s identity. While in a stable, happy relationship with Maxine, Shirin lives in quiet, affluent Park Slope. Post-breakup, as Shirin mourns of the loss of being one half of an “It Couple” with Maxine, she moves to a shared artists loft space in Bushwick, which her more successful older brother compares to a “refugee camp.”
“Each neighborhood [in Brooklyn] changes identities so quickly that jumping through them is like trying on personalities for size sometimes,” said Akhavan, who has lived in many of the Brooklyn neighborhoods satirized, is a member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, and also directed a Web series, called “The Slope,” about lesbians living in Park Slope.
“I was writing from what I knew. I knew what it was like to come of age in those particular neighborhoods — in Bed-Stuy or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill…. So it was about figuring out where was the right location for the character [Shirin] to undergo whatever experience she had.”