Forget its generic title, its breakup setup, and its indie-standard Brooklyn walk-and-talks: Writer/director Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behavior is the freshest comedy of life and love in the city since Obvious Child. Hilarious and heartbroken, Akhavan stars as Shirin, a bisexual Iranian-American video artist just bounced from her lover's Gowanus apartment. (Relish the memory of the now-gone Kentile Floors sign.) "How do people meet, agree they like each other, and then keep on liking each other?" she sighs at her new roommate. Then she adds, with amusing politeness: "I'm gonna lie here and try to forget what it felt like to be loved. Can you please turn off the light?"
In outline, Shirin's adventures might sound indie-by-numbers: This struggling artist takes on a job teaching film to 5-year-olds while trying to find herself, show up her ex, and keep her parents in the dark about her sexuality. But Akhavan is adept at the piercing detail: the jumble of dishes in a sad loft's sink; the meaningless intimacies dutifully exchanged between extended relations; the cues that the family knows your secrets yet would prefer not to have to acknowledge them. Despite the occasional flat line reading, her supporting cast is mostly ace, even when playing caricatures — the richest is the lingerie shop proprietress (Kelly McAndrew), whose pushy self-help talk at first seems comic but comes to sound like truth handed down from a spirit guide.
Akhavan herself proves a commanding lead, even in a role that demands she shrink from life. Unlike the protagonists of the Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen films to which this film will (and should) be compared, Shirin doesn't think of herself as the central figure around whom the world turns. Instead, she's just hanging in there, digging for the next moment of bliss or love, suffering through bad hookups and an awkward threesome as she searches. Potent flashbacks to the relationship she's lost play, at first, like memories in which she's seeking refuge. They're wonderful, especially the earliest moments: The couple first meet on the steps outside a New Year's Eve party, just a couple of minutes before midnight, and Shirin, bitter and bored, at first comes on too bluntly, joking too darkly, complaining too much. But then Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) complains as well, and a surge of excitement prompts Shirin to gush: "I find your anger so incredibly sexy. I hate so many things too." Akhavan treats the line with a smart mix of naive excitement and hopeful calculation. The connection Shirin thinks she feels gives her the courage, briefly, to speak an emotional truth, and she's just savvy enough to know that it might also serve as a pickup line.
The thrill of that connection is matched in another first from that relationship: the lovers smoking pot together. As the drugs kick in, both chatter nervously, fearing that they're saying too much, that they'll reveal the wrong thing, until Shirin softens and marvels: "We're the same kind of stoned person." After that, they laugh, relax, sink into each other. The rest of the movie is Shirin searching for that chance to sink again, not only into a Maxine but also into anything that matches her so well. The end is hopeful, but even more so is the fact that this debut shows her creator has found that to which she's ideally suited: illuminating lives in film.