Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) moves in to Park Slope, Brooklyn in an attempt to cement her identity as an ideal Persian daughter, politically correct bisexual, and hip young Brooklynite. She fails miserably in her attempt at all three formations, and is then dumped by her girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Desiree reluctantly moves in to an artist’s loft in Bushwick, but unable to forget about Maxine, she forms a plot to win back her ex.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Premiering at Sundance as part of the NEXT program—a showcase for films that 'embody the spirit of independent filmmaking"—Appropriate Behaviour is a film true to its various idioms. To begin with, it hews close to the definition of independent film Sundance made popular beginning in the 1990s: stories of the young, aimless, and ironic. Writer and director Desiree Akhavan plays Shirin, a twentysomething Persian-American living in gentrified Brooklyn with her rapidly yellowing journalism degree and her lesbian girlfriend. As the film opens, Shirin is moving out of the apartment she shared with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) in possession of the sex toy their break-up has rendered toxic.
hews close to the definition of independent film Sundance made popular beginning in the 1990s
The image of Shirin stalking down a Brooklyn street, strap-on in hand, aligns Appropriate Behaviour with the big city, irreverent feminism currently epitomised by Tiny Furniture director and Girls creator Lena Dunham. In its a-linear presentation of the story of Maxine and Shirin’s relationship, the film takes after Annie Hall, though we spend a fair portion of the film observing Shirin in the aftermath of that relationship’s demise. A bisexual unwilling to tell her parents—well-off Iranian immigrants—that Maxine is not just a roommate, Shirin is a warm but hapless personality with a hipster deadpan perfected over years spent eyerolling at her elders. Her refusal to come out to her clearly assimilated, sophisticated parents (and their ignorance of the obvious), a major source of tension in her relationship with Maxine, is not well understood—one of several instances in which Akhavan’s tendency toward caricature and laconic one-liners proves a poor substitute for persuasive emotional context.
Where the stakes are lower, Akhavan draws several Brooklyn types, including the stoner dad (Scott Adsit) who gets his geopolitics from Vice magazine and Shirin’s unflappable best friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer), to amusing effect. As often as a joke rings false or just too reminiscent of Tina Fey ('I hate so many things too!" is how Shirin first bonds with the misanthropic Maxine), Akhavan finds a more idiosyncratic register. Feeling less special at her local newspaper job since another Middle Easterner came on staff, Shirin complains: 'Everyone’s gushing over how Syrian she is." At her most exciting Akhavan is able to reveal the depths of her characters through not canny dialogue but behaviour. A first-date pseudo-rejection reveals the gaps in Shirin’s emotional and sexual maturity; the threesome with two strangers that follows intensifies those gaps before our eyes, in a long and fascinating scene Akhavan presents with visual skill and rare candour.
Life goes on: Shirin takes a job teaching a filmmaking class for five-year-olds; a rivalry with her accomplished older brother continues to bring out the worst in both of them. Akhavan embellishes her simple breakup story with plenty of comedic and sub-comedic threads, scenes whose purpose is not always clear, scenes that lag. Ultimately, Appropriate Behaviour manages an appealing looseness just this side of frayed: in its best moments Shirin’s story no longer appears so simple; her character transcends type (young, aimless, ironic) and counter-type (LGBT-friendly, Iranian) to express in her specificity something well and widely known.