Appropriate Behaviour (****)
Running Time: 86 minutes
Directed by Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Scott Adsit, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed.
NEW York and comedy go together like Bogart and Bacall. From the films of Woody Allen to Ghostbusters to When Harry Met Sally and, on the smaller screen, Friends and Seinfeld, these are just a few of the riches the city has served up. ‘Lesbian’, ‘Persian’ and even ‘women’ are words that are a lot less associated with comedy, but Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour proves there are no barriers to comedy and provides enough laughs to mix it with New York’s finest.
Shirin (Akhavan) has just broken up with her girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and is attempting to move on with her life. Move on with her life is a bit of an exaggeration though, as that implies it was going somewhere in the first place. In her late twenties, single, jobless and in the shadow of her successful brother, Shirin finds herself drifting and looking backwards more than forwards.
Comedies tend to simplify things- there’s a need to keep the subject matter and tone light, as well as the constant, cloying need to be funny, so it pays to keep things moving. In Appropriate Behaviour, however, Desiree Akhavan has made a comedy that balances the sophisticated and the silly with aplomb. It’s a film that mockingly dismisses stereotypes and deadpans the ridiculousness of modern life (magnified through the New York hipster scene) with consummate ease. Simultaneously though, the film never loses sight of portraying Shirin as a real, living and breathing young woman, and it tackles the subjects of loneliness, identity, sex and relationships with bravery and honesty.
The film is cleverly structured, operating a dual chronology that alternates between Shirin’s current life- finding a new apartment, getting a job, romantic encounters- and her former life as one half of a couple with Maxine, which is seen through a series of motivated flashbacks. It’s in these scenes with Maxine that the emotional heart of the film is located. They act as a kind of window into Shirin’s thoughts and allow the audience to understand her defensiveness and vulnerability. Desiree Akhavan and Rebecca Henderson are brilliant together onscreen, both as a couple- they capture a natural intimacy that extends even to a convincing ‘couple’s sense of humour’- and as exes when their fake civility bubbles intensely.
Akhavan’s screenplay also smartly compartmentalizes the comedy, allowing for lower brow humour in the scenes with stoner dad, Ken (30 Rock’s Scott Adsit), and best friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer). These segments, along with Shirin’s filmmaking class for pre-schoolers, zing by and are a lot of fun. There’s a nice overall mix of humour to the film from the visual to observational and an abundance of great lines like “Enough of this lesbian orphan propaganda.” Appropriate Behaviour’s comedy will remind audiences of Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Lena Dunham and in Shirin it has an awkward and impetuous heroine in the mold of Frances Ha, but which reminded me more of a grown-up version of Enid from Ghost World, due to her combination of an almost childlike vulnerability with an acerbic wit.
Starring in, writing and directing Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhavan has shown herself to a bold new talent. With such a strong screen presence and a funny and thought-provoking script it’s easy to overlook Akhavan as a director. There are some wonderful examples of visual storytelling in the film as well as all the laughs though, such as a shot of Shirin watching a couple have sex and one of her alone at a bar. A crosscut scene of her and her brother nagging a respective parent each is also beautifully executed, as are the many flashback sequences. These qualities really help to elevate the film and for that cinematographer Christopher Teague deserves praise as well.
Appropriate Behaviour is a remarkable debut from Desiree Akhavan; it’s that rare thing, an adult comedy. She manages to bridge romantic bonding over talk of failed erections with delightful little touches like the ridiculous kids’ names in her class such as Kujo and Groucho, and a heroine lost in the mix, not knowing where she fits. The film’s ending doesn’t give any answers, like Frances Ha and Ghost World before it, but it offers an emotional empathy that signals Desiree Akhavan as the voice of her generation. Maid in Manhattan this is not.