When I first saw the web series The Slope in 2012, I felt understood. It might sound strange but I had never connected with a piece of fictionalized filmed work, no matter what medium, like I have with the work of Desiree Akhavan. Perhaps it’s because we’re the same age (she’s 29, I’m 30), or that we are both queer-identified women living in cities where being sexual and creative is more encouraged than if we were to reside elsewhere, or simply our senses of humor align. Whatever it is about Desi’s work as a writer, director and actor, I see myself in it like others have found themselves in other movies or TV shows or web series before.
The Slope ran for two seasons, following the relationship between Desi and her now ex Ingrid Jungermann, who went on to create and star in F to 7th. Its success was in the irreverent and sexy comedy that happens between two women and the people around them. Every scene felt easy and conversational, a true slice of life like we were being privy to private unplanned moments— like we were in the bed or going to a sex toy shop with Desi and Ingrid. The settings were familiar, the people (despite being hailed as “superficial, homophobic lesbians”) being the people we know.
Desiree’s feature film debut Appropriate Behavior, which she wrote, directed and stars in, premiered at Sundance this past January, receiving favorable reviews and garnering Desi comparisons to Lena Dunham. (Lena must have appreciated the likeness because she cast Desi in the upcoming season of Girls.) Before it played at Outfest last night in Los Angeles, Outfest artistic director and Sundance programmer Kim Yutani spoke about Desi’s talent, and how she is upping the stakes for new queer cinema. And with high hopes going into seeing Appropriate Behavior for the first time, I was even more inspired and moved than I’d thought I might be.
In the film Desi is Shirin, a Persian-American woman in Brooklyn who is going through a break-up with her androgynous and somewhat stoic girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). As the film unfolds present day, there are flashbacks to the relationship that Shirin wishes she were still a part of, even though there are just as many sad memories as good ones to reflect on. Newly single and moved out of the Brooklyn apartment they shared, Shirin finds a room in a dingier place with two eccentric artist roommates and fields questions from her well-meaning family about why she had to move, as Shirin is not out to her parents or judgmental older brother. (That was just one of the issues she and Maxine had.)
Although Shirin has depressive moments (mindlessly surfing OkCupid to find someone to make Maxine jealous with, having sex with a guy she met there while picturing she was with Maxine instead), she maintains some optimism about her current situation. She leaves her job with a Brooklyn paper (where she’s convinced she was only hired because they wanted someone Middle Eastern on staff) and takes a position teaching children how to make movies on flipcams. Shirin is not where she wants to be, and romanticizes her time with Maxine because it was then that she knew what it “felt like to be loved.”
Shirin is bisexual, which she is unapologetic about but does not want to disappoint her parents with. They are modern but traditional, speaking some Farsi and inquiring about boyfriends frequently. A great scene includes their visit to Shirin and Maxine’s apartment where they ask why there is only one bed. “It’s European,” Shirin tells them, explaining some European women she knows think it’s a great way to “save money to have big expensive weddings to their boyfriends.”
It might not sound outwardly funny from the premise, but Appropriate Behavior is hysterical. But even better, it’ll come off most hilarious and relatable to lesbians and queer women. From the deciding what to do with dildos after a split, to a lover asking you to read Stone Butch Blues, to the dividing of calendar events so that only one of you can attend a social justice for LGBT people meeting at the local feminist bookstore, this movie is about a kind of life that I know I, for one, live. Queer women of this generation will undoubtedly see parts of themselves in the Shirin/Maxine relationship, whether it’s running into your ex at a party where she’s dating someone you know, or telling your partner you love them after they agree to be the one to run downstairs and pick up from the weed dealer because you smell like sex and don’t want them to “activate their rape brain.” Or when Shirin quotes Sex and the City and you know exactly which episode she’s talking about because you have seen every single episode, too, and Carrie was fucking crazy for going to see Big’s ex to pitch a book about a little girl with magic cigarettes.
In 2014, we’ve been lucky enough to have our stories told in films of all size, television shows both on networks and premium cable, and with steadily growing numbers on the web. I have yet to see work that reverberates with me like Desiree Akhavan’s, which is interesting considering that we are as different as we are alike. In the film she tries to tell her mom she’s “a little gay,” to which her mom says, “No” and after insistence from Shirin, “Shhhh.” Shirin is much more sexually fluid, which Desi portrays without guilt or explanation. The sex scenes are raw and natural and comical. There aren’t any over-extended love scenes set to hyper-emotional womyn’s music (in fact, the soundtrack is incredible and includes queer artists like Electrelane and MEN with original tracks from music supervisor Josephine Wiggs). Nothing feels forced or like you’re watching a film at all, which is a talent that Desi has an an energy that the cast and anyone around her must pick up on and feed off of, because Appropriate Behavior is like The Slope in the way that it feels like we’re being offered a glimpse into someone else’s existence, one that could so easily have been ours.
By the end of Appropriate Behavior, Shirin is not magically happy and fulfilled, because that is not what life is. She exists somewhere between the accepting of and disregarding her discontentedness, which is what those of us who are always wanting will identity with, for better or for worse.
Appropriate Behavior is playing in New York at the Rooftop Film Festival on July 31 and at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia on August 7 and 9. Visit appropriatebehaviormovie.com for more information and updates on screenings near you.