No Clever Title: Appropriate Behavior Is A Good MoviePosted: January 26, 2015
Identity can be a difficult thing to handle. It’s not something that I’ve ever had much trouble with; being a straight white man who likes comic books can provide a nice certainty to your life. But for immigrants, or LGBTs, or Brooklynites, defining your identity can be a much more difficult, or awkward, or funny struggle, and Appropriate Behavior captures all of those elements quite well. The debut feature from writer/director/star Desiree Akhaven establishes a smart, sharp and subtle voice that is funny and direct and carries that feeling of authenticity that I can never be sure of myself (not being a bisexual Persian pseudo-hipster) but that grounds the entire story into relatable emotional terms for everyone.
The plot of Appropriate Behavior beings with Shirin (Akhaven) setting out on her own after breaking up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and the main thrust of the story follows Shirin as she grapples with where to go next in her life, with flashbacks to her relationship with Maxine interspersed throughout. And while Shirin clearly wants to get back with Maxine at the outset, the story is less of a romantic comedy and more of a regular coming-of-age tale. It’s less about Shirin winning her girlfriend back as it is winning her identity back.This is accomplished through a lot of self-reflection, some ill-advised and supremely awkward sexual encounters, and a really sweet elementary school film class.
Through most of the story, Shirin is caught between the rock and hard place of her Iranian family’s more traditional, conservative hopes for her and Maxine’s demand for her to come out of the closet. And while the film takes a very liberal view of sexuality, it really paints both sides of this particular struggle as being obnoxious and self-centered. Of course Shirin’s family are a little uptight and don’t seem to be very appreciative of Shirin’s life choices that they know of, so chances are they won’t like the idea of her being bisexual if they can’t even handle her living in a loft with weirdo artists. But Maxine comes off as just as unreasonable and unfair, acting like Shirin’s fear of coming out is a reflection on all of the gay community, and accusing Shirin of having a codependent relationship with her parents just because she doesn’t want to upset them. In the end, Shirin is being pulled in different directions by two sides that seem very convinced that they can’t coexist with the other, and Shirin doesn’t understand why they can’t, because she is very much both things… but also neither thing. And into this existential miasma we bring the children of Shirin’s film class.
The film class is the secret weapon of the film, and brings a strong dose of sweetness into a story that is mostly angst and snark. Early on in the story Shirin’s friend puts her in touch with a father (Scott Adsit) who needs someone to teach an after-school beginner film class for some 5 year olds. This subplot starts off as a background concern, mostly only covered by scenes of Shirin attempting and failing to corral the kids. But after an intensely uncomfortable attempt at a threesome, Shirin feels the need to be proactive about something, and takes initiative to engage with the kids and help them make the sort of movie they really want to make, whether it appeals to their hipster parents’ expectations or not. It’s this moment, just before the actual climax, when Shirin and her kids present the film to a warm but unenthusiastic response from their audience, that Akhaven displays the point of the film: you should be yourself and be proud of yourself, but you should do so on your own terms and at your own pace.
It’s unfair that Shirin’s parents expect her to follow their checklist for what makes a perfect daughter. It’s unfair that Maxine expects Shirin to be as militantly proud and proactive about her sexuality as Maxine is. It’s unfair that the kids in Shirin’s class should be expected to be perfect little artistic snowflakes instead of just having fun the way they’d like to. The film says all of this, and yet never feels like the self-pitying ennui-driven bullshit that people most often associate with Brooklyn hipster stories. Instead, it’s a gradual and casual realization for Shirin, something that she might have known once and needed to rediscover after this most immediate and particular minor crossroads in her life. It doesn’t feel like a self-congratulatory “woe is me” story, just a balanced and human depiction of getting reacquainted with yourself. It’s a cinematic identity that Appropriate Behavior is very comfortable with, to the envy of many other movies.
Appropriate Behavior is on iTunes and other platforms now. So, yknow, GO WATCH IT.