With Desiree Akhavan at the helm, Appropriate Behavior is a very personal New York story of the conflicting demands of love, self and family.
The New Yorkerby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Written, directed and starring Desiree Akhavan, it’s hard not to see Appropriate Behavior, and its story of a bisexual Brooklynite coming out to her Iranian immigrant parents and coping with life after breaking up with her girlfriend, as just another one of those quirky New York comic autobiographies, like Sebastian Silva’s disruptive Nasty, Baby or Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. But there’s more to this navel-gazing rumination on juggling identities – hipster, bisexual and daughter, as Akhavan insists her film, although inspired by real events, is fictional. Perhaps more a self-portrait of lived emotions than a personal confession, Appropriate Behavior is nevertheless a funny and acutely observed window into the life of one New Yorker with a girl’s own story.
Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) has just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). But as we flashback through the highs and lows of their relationship, we also follow Shirin as she embarks on new paths – journeying through Brooklyn with her friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer) to buy bras (and give her breasts the respect they deserve) and apply for shifts at the food coop – just to run into Maxine. She visits her family of high achieving, liberal Iranian immigrants, carefully skirting round the issue of her lack of boyfriends, and takes on a job teaching film to an unruly class of five-year-olds. She even volunteers with Maxine in the fight against legal homophobia, inviting the organising lecturer Sasha (Aimee Mullins) out on a date just to make her ex-girlfriend jealous, and finds her way into an awkward threesome, which doesn’t quite fulfil everyone’s desires. But slowly, anger, hurt and confusion give way to acceptance and courage, as Shirin decides to take the future into her own hands, coming out to her parents (as much as they’ll listen) and deciding to meet up with Sasha again.
There’s a thick layer of autobiography slathered over Appropriate Behavior, and perhaps the real ending to Desiree Akhavan’s meandering tale of a quirky girl’s odyssey through relationships, self-discovery and New York is the film itself – the perfect answer to that typical indie question – who am I? And if Appropriate Behavior does veer into self-referential awkwardness at times – Shirin teaching film and editing the class’ footage at home with all the chain-smoking intensity of George Tomasini – Akhavan’s film is neither self-aggrandising nor self-mocking, just an honest self-portrait of a slightly odd girl finding herself.
Its central premise is the multiple and sometimes conflicting identities that go in to making up one person – the roles and responsibilities that go into each universe – girlfriend, daughter, teacher, friend. And so, in trying to find the appropriate behaviour for each, splintered into fragments, Akhavan’s film becomes a question of balance as Shirin tries to take control of her identity by telling her parents about her sexuality. It’s a sweet and very modern schism – of a streetwise Brooklynite sheltering her parents from the freedoms they’ve secured for her. But in its story of a second generation bisexual coming out to her Iranian family, who have their own ideas about homosexuality, Appropriate Behavior could be more incisive, leaving the pulls and pressures of that world assumed, rather than revealing them in any kind of detail. And for what is essentially a coming out story, Akhavan’s film is rather a damp squib, much better at the patchwork of a fragmented life.
But while the dramatic arc is understated, Appropriate Behavior does nevertheless succeed in keeping the viewer engaged, leading us into a wonderland of unexpected adventures. Some episodes work better than others – such as the painful embarrassment of an awkward first date or the unexpected confidence-building therapy of lingerie shopping – but Akhavan’s script never quite hits the highs of Noah Baumbach’s Brooklyn sister film Frances Ha, settling instead for a breezy veneer of all-too-familiar indie quirk. And while the director does a decent enough job playing herself, Appropriate Behavior never really reaches for anything more. Perhaps there’s too much of Akhavan, or not enough – turning Appropriate Behavior into the prime example of the film’s central premise, as it attempts to please everyone but ends up feeling overly cautious and controlled. Nevertheless, with Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan reveals a new comedic voice – uninhibited, funny and determined to be heard.
Appropriate Behavior is released on 6th March 2015