Appropriate Behaviour begins and ends with a twenty-something woman on a subway train. The woman’s name is Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite with Iranian origins. Throughout the comedy, we come to know how she arrived on these two completely contrasting journeys on New York’s most popular means of public transportation. The result is reminiscent of Frances Ha and the recent works of Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On; Love is Strange). It is the kind of film in which the protagonist walks through the streets of New York holding a strap-on.
The Duke of York’s recently hosted Desiree Akhavan, the writer, director and star of this debut feature, and I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the (almost) sold-out event. Akhavan, known for a webseries called The Slope and a guest appearance on the current season of Girls, was a funny and engaging presence for a lengthy Q&A session after the screening. The only let-down of the evening was that I didn't win one of the ten fashionable t-shirts promoting the film.
Let’s discuss the film first though. The story is told in a non-linear fashion on two parallel timelines. On the one hand, we see an unhappy, frustrated Shirin (Akhavan) drifting through life in search of a sense of direction. After a rough break-up, she is in desperate need of a new start. She begins to teach a film class to a group of fart-obsessed five year-olds and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. These scenes are funny (in a typical, deadpan New York-way), sexy and usually painfully awkward. In the film’s most memorable sequence she hooks up with a random couple she meets at a bar. This will make you laugh and physically cringe at the same time.
Shirin’s semi-successful attempts to deal with her break-up are interspersed with flashbacks of her once happy relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). This half of the story is clearly weaker and lacks emotional impact. There are occasional laughs, but an increasingly serious, nostalgic mood permeates these scenes as they play like a generic romance. These flaws fortunately don’t take away from the entertainment value of the film.
Its biggest virtue is honesty. Appropriate Behaviour is clearly an extremely personal project for Akhvan, but the film never becomes self-indulgent. She draws upon her own experience and opens up. She invites the audience into this strange, hip world of present-day Brooklyn in order to tell a universal story. Even the most ridiculous situations hold a core of emotional truth. We may not know what it feels like to be a bisexual Iranian in New York, but we understand her existential anxieties about identity, love and loneliness.
During the Q&A, Desiree Akhavan asked a very poignant question: “Why do films about bisexuals or Persians always have to be like taking medicine?” With Appropriate Behaviour, she has managed to add a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. It’s a flawed, consistently funny (self-)portrait of a fascinating young woman.