Films about young women coming of age in the big bad world of New York City might seem like old hat at this point, and you would be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the prospect of yet another one. Fortunately,
Appropriate Behaviour is far from merely being a redux of Frances Ha or Tiny Furniture, although they do share a lot of the same DNA. Instead, this warm and vibrant portrait of New York signifies the arrival of an exciting new cinematic voice in the form of Desiree Akhavan, who writes, directs and stars in this Sundance darling.Akhavan plays Shirin, a bisexual Iranian-American, who is grappling with the emotional fallout from a recent break-up with her girlfriend Maxine and attempting to stand on her own two feet. The film jumps seamlessly between the past and present, and we gain insights into the factors that contributed to the demise of the relationship. (To that end, it’s actually not unlike (500) Days of Summer, though thankfully it’s nowhere near as insufferable as that film.) As we learn, the relationship’s failure mostly stems from Shirin’s refusal to come out to her conservative Persian parents, instead choosing to maintain a “We’re just friends!” facade in front of them. It’s here that Appropriate Behaviour begins to distinguish itself from its contemporaries and offers some refreshing commentary on sexuality and culture clashes.
As the film progresses, we see Shirin adjust to single life and witness her disastrous dalliances with new lovers, as well as her mortifying attempts to woo Maxine back. The film is frank and unflinching in terms of how it broaches sexuality; PVC suits and vibrators are par for the course, but are never the butt of the joke. Sexual encounters and first dates are mined for awkward laughs, but there’s also a great deal of pathos and heart here. Anybody who has ever had their heart broken will surely relate to Shirin’s desperate and deliberate ploys to be in the same place as Maxine and cringe with recognition at her misguided thinking that close proximity will remind her ex of what she’s missing.
This is very much a New York film, but rather than simply being an ode to the Big Apple, Akhavan sharply satirizes the borough of Brooklyn and its associated hipster clichés. Scenes involving her day job teaching film to children are particularly amusing, as is a one-liner about watching a friend “dress up as a farm animal and touch herself”– presumably as part of a performance art piece.
As Shirin, Akhavan is the force that anchors this film and allows you to overlook some of its flaws. A talented comic actress, Akhavan is able to embody both confidence and vulnerability. She’s delightfully deadpan and a dab hand at playing trainwrecks. Crucially, she remains likeable throughout. Rebecca Henderson turns in a fine performance as her cold, detached ex Maxine and Halley Feiffer is winning in the role of Shirin’s best friend Crystal. 30 Rock‘s Scott Adsit is also on hand to provide comic relief.
Appropriate Behaviour may not be the sort of film that we’ll be talking about at year end, but it’s a welcome launchpad for Desiree Akhavan, who seems destined for bigger things. Witty, charming and technically accomplished, it should prove enjoyable for anyone partial to Frances Ha, Obvious Child et al.