Appropriate Behavior (2014)

Seen at ICA, London, Friday 27 February 2015

© Gravitas Ventures

Okay, so like I guess this could be called a romantic comedy, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s not about falling in love but about falling out of love, told with copious flashbacks interwoven into a tale of a woman coming to terms with a broken relationship (not an abusive one, or a bad one, just one that didn’t quite work out). I think it’s telling that the first time I saw the trailer I thought the film sounded hilarious (it is, just FYI) and desperately wanted to see it, but the second time what I noticed was all the awkwardness and angst. The comedy is of an observational style that derives a lot of humour as much from what characters don’t say (though the one-liners are great and eminently quotable), and the awkward pauses in their conversations. If it feels like this has been mined by a lot of recent work (and there seems to be some kind of obligatory requirement to mention Lena Dunham’s Girls TV show, on which our present film’s director-writer-star Desiree Akhavan has had a small role) then Appropriate Behavior makes it fresh and interesting by its perspective on a bisexual Iranian-American woman’s point of view (the previously introduced ever-more-multi-hyphenate Akhavan). And this could be the premise for something terribly earnest (or earnestly terrible), but any of that is quickly disarmed by Akhavan’s (or her character, Shirin’s) self-deprecation. So the milieu is at once familiar — stalking the hipster Brooklyn bars and streets of many previous films and TV shows, and presenting some WASPy white faces (there’s a brief role for Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) and reference-points (Sex and the City) — but just twisting them enough to make them strange. Adsit’s character, for example, is a well-meaning nice guy but a terrible parent, while another earnest young white woman (named Tibet, who like Shirin is teaching filmmaking to children) functions as a kind of critique of a whole strand of entitled feminist performativity… but not, it should be stated, in a mean way! Because that’s the thing, the film presents all these different viewpoints — whether familiar as I’ve mentioned already, or unusual, like Shirin’s family life in New Jersey and her wider social group of Iranian-Americans — but everyone in it acts in an understandable and identifiable way. Akhavan doesn’t let Shirin off the hook either, for if anything the film’s whole arc is to track the evolution and maturation of Shirin’s behaviour in her relationships (hence the title). So the outcome — like last year’s quite different but equally refreshing New York-set comedy Obvious Child — is to make me the viewer just want to hang out with all these cool people and be friends with them on their terms. Except the white dudes, who are all uniformly terrible. But that’s fine with me.

POSTSCRIPT: You can see more of Akhavan’s work in her webseries The Slope with Ingrid Jungermann (who seems like she might have been a model for Appropriate Behavior‘s Maxine), which is all here and which I can totally recommend, having now watched them. At its core, or at least where it begins, is the premise of ‘homophobic’ lesbians, playing with a lot of the labels and people’s sensitivity towards them (which is totally necessary and important, but also a fruitful area for comedy it turns out). But even here, starting in 2010, there’s plenty of really great one-liners which deserve to be quoted everywhere and widely. If I had a Tumblr, this week it would all be gifsets from this.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Desiree Akhavan | Cinematographer Chris Teague | Starring Desiree Akhavan | Length 90 minutes


Obvious Child (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Laurelhurst Theater, Portland, Oregon, Thursday 28 September 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent

© A24

I’ve been on holiday in the United States for a few weeks and thus have not been seeing many films. However, thanks to the magic of cheap second-run cinemas (the wonderful Laurelhurst in currently-sunny Portland), I caught up with this comedy which is just being released in the UK. It’s been billed by various pundits as an “abortion romcom” although this is rather misleading and reductive, as the two aspects are fairly distinct. Abortion is hardly a laughing matter, nor is it treated as such; that the central character, Donna, a stand-up comedian, works it into a routine is more to do with her desperation and confusion at the way her life has been going. At the same time, the reality of abortion, and the importance of its availability, is not dodged either. It’s certainly something that could be an awkward blend for this kind of movie, but I think it’s all pulled off wonderfully, no little thanks to the excellent work of lead actor Jenny Slate, who had a single season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live before showing up in excellent smaller roles in TV comedies like Parks and Recreation (another training ground for many of the current generation’s finest comic actors). As Donna, she starts the film off on stage, joking about her relationship, which soon ends, leading a few nights later to some drunken sex with a cute, nice guy she meets at a bar, Max (played by Jake Lacy, who had a role in the last few seasons of The Office US series, and who has a similarly bland likeability here). The ensuing revelations are all handled well, with some low-key (and mostly self-inflicted) drama between Donna and her parents, as well as a series of awkward subsequent encounters with Max which are sympathetically handled, but not conclusively resolved. Quite apart from taking what remains a fairly hot-button issue (especially Stateside), this is a nuanced, well-made and very funny film that deserves every success, and is only more impressive for the sureness of its handling of the subject matter.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Gillian Robespierre (based on the short film by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Gillian Robespierre) | Cinematographer Chris Teague | Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann | Length 83 minutes