Desiree Akhavan’s family crowded around a small table at a hotel coffee shop in Park City, Utah, trading fond — if awkward — memories of her childhood and clumsy first attempts at filmmaking. There was less than an hour before the premiere of her feature film debut, Appropriate Behavior, at the Sundance Film Festival, and as they laughed, joked, and winced, you could almost forget that Desi, as they call her, was about to expose a side of herself that even such a tight-knit family had rarely seen before.
For Desiree, Appropriate Behavior is as much a personal statement as it is a film. Fashioned from memories of a bad breakup and her struggles to tell her Iranian family that she’s bisexual into a sort of modern-day hipster Annie Hall, if Woody Allen was a tall, gregarious 29-year-old first-generation Persian-American living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Dumped by her older girlfriend, Shirin — Desiree’s character in the movie — spirals into a hilariously pathetic state. Appropriate Behavior jumps back and forth between the history of the relationship — how they met, the good times and bad — and her struggles to either get over the heartbreak or win her ex back, depending on how she feels on that particular day.
The film presents a perspective that is both unique and universal; Desiree’s sexuality and heritage are underrepresented in film — especially when paired together — but her flailing and crumpling in the wake of the breakup are both cringingly comedic and immediately sympathetic.
Desiree’s family members hadn’t all seen the movie yet, and there was at least a little bit of uncertainty as to how they’d react after the screening. Still, it was still only fitting that her family — her mother, father, brother, uncle, and aunt — sat by her side as the film’s premiere loomed. Getting to Sundance was a decade-long journey for Desiree, and it wouldn’t have happened without them.
At first, her parents were a one-stop solution to all of her filmmaking challenges. Whenever she was given a production assignment as an NYU film student, Desiree turned her eyes toward their spacious home up the Hudson River in Rockland County; they, in turn, did everything in their power to help facilitate and feed the crew that had invaded upon their suburban tranquility.
Afterward, they would vow it was the last time they’d lend their house to the insanity that is amateur filmmaking, but it wasn’t long before Desiree got another assignment, and her parents acquiesced, again going above and beyond the call of duty. Her mom, Yasmin, would make breakfast for 30 ravenous cast and crew members, while her dad, Cyrous, would drive so often and did so much heavy lifting that he called himself the Teamster; his job description included guarding the truck with $50,000 worth of equipment that Desiree and Co. had maybe neglected to lock up.
“What’s so funny about my parents being here is all I think of when I see you guys, especially here, is craft services on shitty short films I made,” Desiree told her parents, who she insisted often did too much to facilitate and make her fledgling cinematic projects run smoothly. “Like waking up at, like, 3 in the morning so you could drive a van to go buy Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and carry 20 ungrateful 22-year-olds for hours to DUMBO in Brooklyn. Just ridiculous things that your family does to help. You feel entitled to make films, and they enable you to keep moving forward and blindly pursue a dream that is completely stupid.”
“But it was your dream. I always saw that in you,” her mother countered, beaming with pride in her daughter (a state she remains in throughout the conversation, even when Desi teased her for suggesting that she might become a hand model if the filmmaking thing didn’t work out). “I always encouraged you, and I always saw that you have this talent in you. You were always so funny. As a kid, you were the funniest member of our whole family and our extended family. You had this sense of humor, so I kept telling you, ‘Do something with it.’”
And mother knows best. After spending her adolescence in New York doing amateur playwriting — when she was young, she penned a spoof called Friday Night Live, featuring a sketch called “The Vomelet,” which was about, of course, an omelet made from vomit — Desiree found her path at Smith College. That led to NYU film school, those house-destroying shorts, and then a web series called The Slope about a lesbian couple living in Brooklyn, which she wrote and starred in, as well.
Appropriate Behavior is a different kind of family affair than Desiree’s earlier efforts. Yes, they did continue the tradition by spending a day filming at her parents’ house, but that was only one of 18 production days. And there were professionals around this time to do the heavy lifting and catering. The intimacy in this film comes mostly from its subject matter: the Akhavans themselves.
One of the reasons that Shirin and her girlfriend split is because Shirin is afraid to come out to her conservative Iranian family, a crucial subplot that could have been a major point of contention for Desiree’s real family at home. They’re portrayed by actors on screen, but seeing as the audience is aware that Appropriate Behavior is semi-autobiographical, viewers understandably might assume that her family really was that difficult.
Crucially, her mom was on board with the film from the start.
“I was fine with it. I was completely fine with it. I was very proud again when I read about how she had written every line,” Yasmin said of the Appropriate Behavior script. “I had no problem whatsoever from the beginning, and I knew that she was going to direct it very well.”
Desiree was quick to point out that she made sure that the on-screen version of her mom was more distant and cold than the adoring matriarch beside her throughout her whirlwind week at Sundance. “For that element of this character, it made more sense for her fear to tell her about the relationship if they’re a little more traditional and a little more stiff,” the filmmaker explained.
“You’re very exposed, not just physically but emotionally,” Desiree’s older brother Ardavan carefully explained to his sister while sitting next to her at the Park City coffee shop. “And these are things that people don’t talk about in the family, and it’s just in our face and it may be a little awkward.”
Though, again, they hadn’t yet seen the the film in full when we spoke, Desiree’s brother and father were also pretty magnanimous about their on-screen doppelgängers, based on the clips they’d previewed before the festival. Ardavan is portrayed as a brother who, in many ways, is Shirin’s opposite: A surgeon and engaged to be married, he has his shit together and needles his sister to give up the ghost and do the same. But, it was also a friendly enough portrayal that the actor who plays Ardavan felt confident enough to send him a friend request on Facebook.
“Everything he said, I was laughing because it was something that I would say,” Ardavan admitted. “I think [Desiree] knows me better than anyone.”
One of his quirkier habits — sending graphic photos from the the operating room — also made its way into the movie. “He just loves to send photos. He’s a pediatric urologist and they’re just really graphic, disgusting photos. Every time we’re eating, he’s like, ‘Check it out! Check it out!’” Desiree said with a laugh. “But Mom is so supportive of both her children. She’s like, ‘It’s beautiful!’”
The support, of course, didn’t preclude a bit of awkwardness. Her family was well aware that Desiree had several sex scenes in Appropriate Behavior, and with her mom having seen a preview screening, she planned on holding her son’s and husband’s hands when they might want to close their eyes, despite Desiree’s insistence that “it’s just a little bit of boob!”
In an email after Appropriate Behavior’s successful premiere — the reviews were quite solid — Desiree happily reported that her family quite enjoyed the film…even if her dad did close his eyes from time to time.
Editor’s note: The name of one of Akhavan’s family members has been removed at her request.