Hilarious and authentic, Desiree Akhavan puts a spin on the usual hipster rom-com.
It came as literally no surprise when within a week of watching Appropriate Behavior I read that Desiree Akhavan—the film’s director, writer, and star—had landed a role on Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. Akhavan’s film plays like an extended episode of the NYC millenial-centric series. Only from a bi-sexual Iranian-American perspective. Which, let’s face it, is slightly more interesting and certainly more diverse than Girls’ privileged white girl problems (though don’t misread me, it’s one of my favorite shows.) Similarly to Girls, Appropriate Behavior is full of awkward and narcissistic moments, but feels so familiar to anyone who is in or close to this generation that it’s impossible not to be dazed. Considering its coming of age premise and New York setting, Appropriate Behavior could easily fall into the cracks among other movies released of late in that vein, but Akhavan’s perspective and her character’s development—something similar modern movies seem to leave out all too often—prove she’s an intriguing new voice and formidable talent.
The film follows Shirin (Akhavavn), a bisexual Brooklynite whose story is told in both the past and the present. In the present she struggles with a recent break-up from her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), now forced to find a new apartment and on the rebound. In the past we see the beginning, middle, and end of things with Maxine and how Shirin’s inability to be honest with her strict Persian family about her sexuality proves too taxing for Maxine, leading to their eventual break-up. Shirin’s reactions to her break-up range from trying to get back together by attempting to get on Maxine’s shift at their local co-op, to showing up at Maxine’s gay and lesbian support group and pointedly asking out the group leader in the middle of the meeting. The most hilarious and lowest point of their break-up is a run-in at a bar when Shirin and Maxine attempt to one-up each other with their dates, Shirin explaining her “rebel with a cause” boyfriend is “spearheading a campaign to bridge the gap in gentrification in Brooklyn through mass kombucha brewing.” Maxine simply responds “That isn’t a thing.”
Akhavan’s film contains plenty of sexual situations, and while her straightforwardness regarding these situations sometimes reads as unbelievable it certainly makes a statement regarding the normalcy of sex in Shirin’s life, not to mention urban twenty-somethings. One scene involves Shirin being (rather accidentally) picked-up by a couple and brought back to their place for a threesome. No other depiction of a threesome has been both hilarious and everything I imagine that situation would be in real life. Shirin—clearly more into the female then the male—is at moments awkwardly left out while trying to uphold the “sexiness” factor with both partners. And when the male starts to catch on the chemistry is clearly better between Shirin and the woman, his ego can’t quite take it. It’s funny and pointedly gawkish.
Appropriate Behavior begins and ends on subway trains and, like any Woody Allen movie or NYC-based rom-com, it stresses the public nature of braving emotional upheaval in a crowded city. Life happens, and in close quarters everyone is going to see it, in fact those used to city life could hardly be expected to even try to hide their distress. These two very different train sequences—the first dark and showing Shirin tear-stained and surrounded by rowdy teenagers, the second sunlit with Shirin smiling—are excellent bookends to the film, showing that while she’s been distracted by her loneliness and facing her family’s expectations, she has found a peace within herself.
The film suffers only slightly at points in bouncing from similar situation to similar situation, weighing down the pace. There are also far too many side characters including Shirin’s new weed smoking employer Ken (30 Rock’s Scott Adsit) who recruits Shirin to teach children how to make films. However, this situation leads to some of the film’s best analysis of Shirin, including her hurt ego when snubbed by 5-year-olds, and her eventual ability to let go and allow her students to create on their terms—resulting in a hilarious film involving farts and zombies.
Akhavan’s début showcases a unique new voice, though the conversation is hardly new. Her comedic timing and keen self-awareness are demonstrated by just how oblivious she portrays Shirin. And while Shirin’s heritage has much to do with her problems, her family’s expectations proving incredibly high-set, Akhavan never depicts that aspect of herself, or her bisexuality for that matter, to be more or less frustrating than simply being a young-woman looking for, and attempting to understand, love. Forget the ironic hipster title, setting, wardrobe, and subject-matter, which mostly serve to add to a sense of intimacy in their familiarity, the real originality in Appropriate Behavior is its perspective, and where her film may lack, Akhavan makes up for it in authenticity.