My initial reaction to Appropriate Behavior was immense frustration. Not because the movie is bad, mind you (it’s pretty great), but because I could have seen it a year ago at Sundance, but missed out. But now it is hitting theaters for all to see, and no one should repeat my mistake and skip a chance to catch this delightful piece of work. This is not just a good movie but an exciting one, because it announces a budding talent, and as a triple threat, no less. Desiree Akhavan is writer, director, and star, and she slam dunks every one of those roles with aplomb.
Akhavan plays Shirin, a young woman trying and failing to juggle her multiple identities and what’s expected of them. Her bisexuality and flailing career are major walls to being the model Iranian-American daughter her parents want, while her unwillingness to come out of the closet to them obstructs her desire to be a properly progressive bisexual woman. It’s like a reverse of a chocolate-meets-peanut-butter happy accident. On top of all this, Shirin has just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and has a vague conviction in mind to win her back through sheer force of will. Like many of the things she tries, that doesn’t quite work out, but the failure is hilarious.
Akhavan’s script and direction are wonderfully on point, and I don’t say that with a “for a first-time feature” qualification — any experienced director would be proud to have this in their filmography. She’s honed her skills through her web series The Slope, of which Appropriate Behavior could be considered a cinematic version. Multiple critics have compared Akhavan’s comic sensibility to Lena Dunham’s, but a closer match would be Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. It’s not just because Jacobson and Glazer also grew a ‘legitimate’ project out of a web series, but because the off-kilter situations Akhavan concocts often feel more of a kind with Broad City‘s gleeful absurdity. Really, though, Akhavan has her own style that can’t really be given a one-to-one comparison. But I’ll keep talking those up because Akhavan absolutely deserves to have her own TV series, too.
Shirin’s myriad interactions — with her parents, her brother, her friends, her co-workers, the young children she teaches “filmmaking” to, the random people she hooks up with — all feel convincing. That authenticity is sharpened rather than diluted by the sometimes heightened situations they find themselves in (a cartoonish square-off between two different filmmaking classes, smoking pot in public and losing track of a child). Though given fleeting screen time, they’re all human beings, fleshed out by the screenplay and the talents of the actors. And they all orbit around Akhavan’s often sympathetic, often cringe-inducing (sometimes simultaneously) lead. Trying to suss out identity issues may be shopworn indie film material, but not when delivered through a voice that hasn’t been given enough time to speak in cinema.
The only character the film doesn’t totally make work, it turns out, is Maxine. From her first scene, she comes across as an unrepentant stick in the mud, and it never really becomes clear why Shirin ever fell in love with her, much less why she’s so desperate to get Maxine back. Still, flaws like that don’t diminish the overall fun of Appropriate Behavior, which is easily one of the early notable films of the year.
— Dan Schindel