Cast: Desiree Akhavan, Scott Adsit, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Aimee Mullins
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Writer: Desiree Akhavan
Ever since the release of her debut film writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan has often been compared by critics to Lena Dunham, the star and showrunner of HBO’s Girls (in which, interestingly, Akhavan has appeared), and it’s easy to understand why. Both of them have masterminded semi-autobiographical projects that have been praised for their honesty, explicitness and humour. They both tell stories about their everyday problems brought about by their insecurities and how they struggle to find any sort of direction or identity in life. They both tell tales about self-discovery as both protagonists attempt to discover who they are emotionally, creatively and sexually. Much like Lena Dunham, Desiree Akhavan possesses a singular mind with a unique outlook of life. Appropriate Behaviour is a story that only she could have told because it is her own story and it is told from her own distinctive perspective.
The story is that of Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) whose life starts falling apart following her break-up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). She is forced to leave her apartment and move into a smaller place. To make ends meet she gets a job teaching filmmaking to a class of six-year-olds that she can’t control. She is constantly berated by her Iranian parents (Anh Duong and Hooman Majd) who, either clueless or insensitive about her sexuality, pester her about her personal life and when it is that she intends to finally settle down with a man. The pressure they place on her becomes all the more overbearing as she is expected to live up to the standard set by her perfect brother (Arian Moayed) with his perfect job, his perfect fiancé, and his perfect life. As Shirin struggles to try and rebuild her life the film depicts flashbacks of her relationship with Maxine, showing how they first fell in love and how they eventually grew apart.
The biggest and most difficult struggle that Shirin faces is that she doesn’t know who she is or where she fits in. She is bisexual but is unable to come out to her parents. She is ethnically Persian but feels no connection to her cultural or ancestral heritage. She wants acceptance but refuses to conform to the externally ordained standards that she is expected to meet. She wants to be successful but doesn’t have any hopes or ambitions that she cares enough about. She wants to be happy but doesn’t know how. Pained by the departure of her lover, Shirin embarks on a self-destructive path as she indulges herself in sexual escapades. At moments when she is by herself, she reflects on her relationship with Maxine and tries to pinpoint where it all went wrong. Perhaps Shirin hopes that, by finding the answer to that question, she will be able to retrieve the one part of her life that she actually loved and cared about and that everything will then be alright. However this film is not a romantic comedy and Shirin’s problems are not the kind that can be solved in the space of a two-hour film.
Desiree Akhavan makes an electrifying debut with Appropriate Behaviour. The film’s screenplay is smart, funny and unapologetically honest. Akhavan is both self-secure and confident enough that she is never afraid to show herself at her most vulnerable or her most uncomfortable. She invites the audience to watch Shirin in her most private, intimate moments in which she exposes herself, escapes herself, and, in some cases, embarrasses herself. These are the moments in which the audience is reminded of just how human this character is. One particularly memorable moment is the awkward threesome in which Shirin joins a sexually adventurous couple to indulge in their appetites only for the experience to prove unfulfilling when Shirin shows more interest in the wife than in the husband, much to his displeasure. Such moments prove humourous in how downright awkward and uncomfortable they are.
I enjoyed this film, but I can understand why some people would not. It is clearly a personal film that explores deeply intimate moments and feelings and some viewers might be put off by how far it goes. Others are (in some cases, justifiably) fed up with stories that portray and pander to the problems of privileged, educated people who can’t seem to just get over themselves. Although I personally disagree in this instance, some people have denounced this film as being shallow, superficial and self-indulgent. They find the main character to be unlikeable and her journey to be uninteresting. To me, however, this is a film of profound honesty and authenticity with a deeply flawed but relatable protagonist and a smart, shameless script. At times I did find Shirin’s inability to overcome her insecurities and vices despite her increasing self-awareness to be tiring, but it is still overall an incredibly strong first feature. I look forward to seeing what Akhavan does next.