ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 48: Appropriate Behavior

Year: 2014

Runtime: 90 Minutes

Director: Desiree Akhavan

Writer: Desiree Akhavan

Stars: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Scott Adsit, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, 

Appropriate Behavior  OR It’s All A Mess: Gold Gleams in the Big City

By Akie Kutsunai

Heartbreak is the worst, and heartbreak in New York City is a crime against the universe. All it takes is a little New York ingenuity, some comic misadventures, and then everything will come back together again, right? That’s how it works in a romantic comedy!

But what about when the star of our romantic comedy isn’t just a typical New York artist? What about when she’s bisexual out of work journalist, when she’s the daughter of traditional Iranian immigrants, and when she’s determined to get back together with her ex-girlfriend?

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Desiree Akhavan writes, directs, and stars in this brisk satire that attempts to tackle the ambivalence of being everything to everyone, and feeling like you fit nowhere. “Appropriate Behavior” (2015) begins and ends with its protagonist Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) on the subway, shuttling between points A and B. We meet Shirin in the aftermath of her breakup with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and it becomes quickly apparent that her entire life is coming apart at the seams. A new apartment and a new job spark concern in her supportive and affluent parents, while her perfect older brother keeps lamenting her wasted potential.

What She Said:

“Akhavan is both the driving force and the main asset of the story. She’s a magnetic screen presence: all luxurious long limbs and dark-eyed drama, underscored with a disarming awkwardness.”

Wendy Ide, The Times

Twitter@wendyide

Akhavan steps smoothly into the New York rom-com genre by embracing and quietly subverting its expected beats. Initially, I found the Brooklyn jargon to be confusing, but I had no problems once I got into the flow of such snappy dialogue. Shirin embodies so many of the typical New York rom-com heroine’s attributes—she’s got great bangs, she asks people out on dates—but she’s also relentlessly, viscerally imperfect. She drifts away from her video job because she insists that she’s no longer “the token Middle Eastern hire,” and she essentially stalks Maxine at their former haunts.

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We feel terrible for Shirin’s struggles, but we’re also increasingly uncomfortable with her insistence that she is always right, despite clear indicators to the contrary. Her plan is to make the best of teaching a kids’ moviemaking class, vengefully pursuing new romantic partners, and ultimately win Maxine back.

What She Said:

“It’s a film offering us a rare perspective and highlighting why having female, LGBTQ, and minority perspectives as a whole are so woefully missed and so entirely necessary”

Allyson Johnson, The Young Folks
Twitter @AllysonAJ

The story uses flashbacks to great effect during its focused 90-minute runtime. Everyday objects and moments–a lit candle, a dimly lit bar—remind Shirin of moments with Maxine. The expected memories appear, with the first kiss and the first I love you, but discordant memories disrupt their romance. The lit candle leads into a hilarious send-up of roleplay and lesbian bed death; the bar leads into an awkward Pride night gone wrong, ending in a brief fight. As the story finds its rhythm, the flashbacks become less abrupt and more immersive, allowing us to sink into Shirin’s life as she struggles with rejection and impossible expectations. She’s lost so many things: her girlfriend, her job, her apartment, and apparently, her credibility as a queer femme lady.

Shirin’s chaotic life belies the film’s evocative title, and this tension addresses a difficult question head-on. What is appropriate for a closeted bisexual younger daughter who is part of a larger conservative immigrant community? What is appropriate for this woman in her relationship with an older white butch lesbian? How does intersectionality apply to the privilege of a CIS femme lady of colour with affluent, supportive immigrant parents who always ask about why she doesn’t have a boyfriend?

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These questions have no easy answers, and to its credit, the movie is unflinching in its commitment to these complex issues. In typical rom-com fashion, once Shirin hits rock bottom and leans into the opportunities that are already in front of her, her life becomes about the potential of something new rather than reclaiming something that has been lost.

What She Said:

“There’s a lot to get across here, a lot of information, but the real strength of “Appropriate Behavior” is that you can sense, in every scene, that Akhavan really has something to say.”

Sheila O’Malley, RogerEbert.com

Akhavan has crafted a well-paced New York love story centred on grounded characters even as it pays loving homage to queer and Persian communities. Her New York overwhelms with freedom–how do you know that you’ve chosen the right job, the right partner, the right community, the right time to talk to your family? Seeing a femme woman of colour wrestle with these issues, make mistakes, and live on her own terms was incredibly empowering. We all benefit from the questions of what is appropriate, who is this appropriate for, and how can we make this better for everyone?

Rating: 4 Out Of 5 Stars

The Extra Bits

Where to watch:

BFI Player: Stream

Amazon: Rent & Buy

iTunes: Rent & Buy

Google Play: Rent & Buy

Who to Follow

Desiree Akhavan @desireeeakhavan

Cecilia Frugiuele (producer) @CFparkville

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