Film review – Appropriate Behavior
Desiree Akhavan’s breakup comedy Appropriate Behavior cautiously and honestly blends the familiar with the new, as she competently writes, directs, and stars in her first feature. Indiscriminately using every aspect of her own life to the screen, Akhaven plays Shirin, a second-generation Iranian who’s struggling to find a job, a living situation, and a suitable rebound after ending a closeted relationship with her first serious girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). What first seems like a mopey, navel-gazing coming-of-age drama, quickly reveals itself as a clever and self-deprecating comedy that deconstructs the arc of a relationship in a non-linear, Annie Hall fashion. This kind of shuffling between the best of times and the worst of times is perhaps an overused storytelling trope, but when it comes to relationship movies, it’s a trick that almost always, and most effectively, maximizes the inherent drama of the one-that-got-away yarn.
People will draw obvious parallels between Akhaven’s film and a new breed of female-driven, post-Woody Allen, millennial comedies, probably best exemplified in Lena Dunham’s indie debut, Tiny Furniture (2010), and subsequent HBO sitcom, Girls—both of which this film clearly share as an influence. Other recent entrees in this almost-genre include Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha (2013), and last year’s Obvious Child (2014). Like the above-mentioned films, Appropriate Behavior takes place in the cramped apartments, art-shows, and dance parties of Brooklyn and features a young and openly flawed protagonist who comes from an upper middle-class family and fumbles her way through a quarter-life crisis. But what distinguishes the plight of Akhavan’s character Shirin is the cultural specificity of her ethnic and sexual identity, fragmenting and complicating what others might criticize as first-world problems.
Shirin is a fantastically complicated character; she’s funny, self-effacing, brazen, and terrified of rocking the boat. While the queer subject matter of her story is never hidden or avoided, this movie’s approach to it is more matter of fact in its inclusion. Instead of a typical coming-out drama where a confused bisexual is forced come to terms with her new and exciting feelings after meeting “the one,” here, the protagonist is slowly emboldened to be open with her truth after the relationship long since ended. It’s more than implied that Shirin’s lack of transparency with her parents about her relationship with Maxine is ultimately what poisoned the well, but the movie never bangs us over the head with those details or allows us to pity her bone-headed choices. We travel through all the beats of the two’s tumultuous union while cross-cutting to the present day, where Shirin painfully and hilariously struggles to move on and find a balance between the girl she grew up to be and girl her parents still thinks she is. Never mind the added pressure that the only job she can land is teaching destructive toddlers how to make short films with flip cams and candy, while her successful brother, Ali (Arian Moayed), is already engaged to be married and making his living as a urologist.
Akhavan’s obvious talent with dialogue is highlighted by a well-rehearsed cast, which quickly and believably delivers its lines without ever giving into the temptation of hamming it up or adding unneeded comedic punctuation. Filled with barbed one-liners and snarky observations, the actors never judge their characters or let the stylized verbiage of their speech feel cold or stagey. In a perfectly written and edited sequence, Shirin tries to convince her parents that Ali’s perfectionism will eventually lead to a mental breakdown. “That Virginia Tech kid was just trying to impress his strict Korean parents,” she tells her father. In the next room, Ali is trying to convince his mother that Shirin is wasting her potential. “It’s not that she’s dumb or unattractive, she’s perfectly capable of being normal.” While still managing to move the story along with laughs, this exchange also speaks volumes about this family structure and in a matter of minutes creates a rich, implied history. In the grand scheme of the narrative, this might seem like a small and insignificant scene, but this kind of effortless economy with exposition suggests a screenwriting talent that many work for years to realize.
Between all the neurotic jabbering, Akhaven’s script also knows when to simmer and build towards resonant moments that tenderly anchor the comedy, such as the near-silent scene where a one-off threesome goes awkwardly wrong, and a revealing flashback when Shirin and Maxine find out that they both get the same kind of lack-of-boundaries honest after smoking pot, becoming comfortable enough to finally announce their love for one another. These dear-diary sequences are played with just enough sincerity for the audience to emotionally connect with the characters without ever dampening the laughs or drifting over into desperate sentimentality.
As is the trend with so many films in the recent wave of queer-themed cinema, Appropriate Behavior certainly has a lot of crossover potential and Desiree Akhavan’s raw talent as a director and writer, as well as her natural comedic timing and charisma as an actor, will hopefully bring her the kind of industry attention that put Lena Dunham into Judd Apatow’s radar. The setting and the structure are a little tired, and the dynamics of the story might feel a little too familiar, but Akhaven’s point of view is strong and uncompromising and brings in a layer of diversity that this genre desperately needs.