New York City and the dreamers who flock there have been a staple of film almost since the medium’s advent. King Vidor chronicled the American Dream’s poisonous mystique in his silent masterpiece The Crowd in 1928. Busby Berkeley threw the city’s majesty on screen with his extravagant dance numbers, creating the illusion that something this visually stunning could only happen in a New York City setting.
Now that filmmaking has gone digital, smaller New York stories are growing in popularity, often focusing on adults wrestling with their imminent adulthood. We have Gimme the Loot, Broad City, Tiny Furniture, High Maintenance and Frances Ha just to name a few recent entries. Even this tiny selection shows the variety that fits under this umbrella.
With AppropriateBehavior, writer / director / star Desiree Akhavan opens this umbrella a little further, giving us a hilarious, heartfelt, and immensely charming take on a familiar tale. She plays Shirin, a beautiful Iranian 20-something who was just dumped by her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The first scene shows a shocked, dispirited Shirin clearing her few belongings — including a large dildo she gave Maxine as “a gift” — out of their shared apartment as Maxine sits on the bed, head down.
And just like that Sharin is out the door, tossing a solitary box into the trash…but pausing to save the dildo. You know what happens next. Sharin sets off on a path of self-discovery, first complaining about her life and romantic situation before stumbling upon a glorious, validating epiphany.
You’re right, none of Appropriate Behavior’s beats are particularly surprising, but the film’s familiarity is bolstered by Akhavan’s honest, vulgar, and entirely unique presentation. The film is ultimately inspiring, concerned with next love over lost love, as perfectly illustrated by a beautiful final shot.
Appropriate Behavior is peppered with flashbacks that reveal Sharin and Maxine’s relationship as the real-time narrative elaborates on Sharin’s personal journey. It’s never an overly nostalgic representation that whines or pines for lost love, but an inviting, shared experience. We can, to some extent, feel the breakup’s lingering sting because the relationship is fresh for us and the two are really, really great together.
Sharin and Maxine’s relationship is built on shared interests, as any healthy relationship should be. They meet on a set of stairs they’re both using to escape a party and bond over their shared hatred of things. Sharin says “I hate so many things too,” which earns a laugh from Maxine and us. Everyone is falling in love with this girl. But this isn’t enough, as we quickly see. In the end, this hatred hits too close to home and what should be shared interests are gaping chasms — Maxine is Out to her family, and completely alienated as a result. Sharin “hasn’t found the right moment” to drop her bomb and refers to Maxine as her roommate or friend whenever they come around. Why does their apartment only have one bed? It’s cheaper, of course.
I consider myself an advocate for the LGBT community, but I’m mostly unfamiliar with the personal and social issues that can plague these relationships. Yet I can imagine the “coming out” dilemma being a huge thorn in their sides. Maxine has suffered and is stronger for it, but also less forgiving of Sharin’s insecurities. Sharin is straddling a line of comfort, which can make her bisexuality seem like a phase rather than a lifestyle commitment…this, in turn, may be more unfair for everyone.
Desiree Akhavan tackles these issues with a fresh voice while incorporating some concerns that seem personal to her and new to me. She refrains from shoving anything in your face, letting circumstances and decisions play out on the periphery instead. She’s the daughter of a successful immigrant family and while they’re tolerant of her bohemian lifestyle, coming out as bisexual may be the last straw. Especially when they hail from a country where LGBT individuals are literally stoned to death.
Akhavan has an incredibly honest approach to these issues and the entire film. Whatever insecurities she may have as a writer, director, and performer are checked at the door and Sharin finds herself in more than one awkward, but incredibly human situations. There’s a candid (and surprisingly heartfelt) encounter with the world’s brashest lingerie sales-woman, an emotionally unbalanced threesome, and, of course, run-ins with Maxine herself.
More than anything else, Appropriate Behavior is just a damn fun watch that feels timely and may have the potential to be timeless. It’s certainly concerned with issues of the day. It cracks jokes about OK Cupid and never misses a chance to ridicule the New York art scene, but it truly is most concerned with a bisexual, minority woman navigating the waters of 21st century America. In all honesty, what is the appropriate behavior for someone in her position? Akhavan may not provide any clear cut answers, but if she’s the captain of this ship I’ll consider myself an honored guest.