I haven’t found many comedies or comedy-dramas in 2015 that have tickled my funny bone, but Appropriate Behaviour had me smirking away regularly, primarily because of the razor sharp screenplay and lead performance by Desiree Akhavan (who is also the director). This is a concise story about a bisexual Iranian-American woman named Shirin, and the failure of her fairly long-term relationship with Maxine, a fellow twenty-something played by Rebecca Henderson. It also serves as an outlet for Akhavan’s sardonic skewering of Persian culture – as it exists within the demographic of upper-middle class New Jersey families, at any rate – as well as Brooklyn’s infestation of hipsters. The latter probably deserve a break now, and as soon as a millennial with a beard or a tattoo appears here you know they’re only in the film to say something ridiculous before disappearing, but I can’t think of many recent scripts that have picked hipsterdom apart quite as successfully as this one. Noah Baumbach’s last three films have done so to a certain degree, but Akhavan seems to really know the bars, the parties, the apartment interiors and the types, plus she brings a conspiratorial air to Appropriate Behaviour that I find irresistable: Shirin comes close to breaking the fourth wall on a number of occassions, and you feel like the lead character is about to stop and ask you if you can believe what you’re seeing and hearing, even though that never actually happens. Many of the laughs come from awkward silences or near-double takes, and in a strange way the humour here reminded me of the UK version of The Office, which is jam-packed with similar techniques, even though the subject matter is completely different.
It’s a snarky, slightly bawdy and droll comedy, but it also has heart. The use of occasional flashbacks as a means of telling the story of Shirin and Maxine’s relationship is a device that will be familiar to most viewers, but the intimate scenes themselves are well acted and believable enough for that not to matter too much; we see the couple meet on a doorstep outside a New Year’s Eve party, trying to out-cool one another, and then there’s the honeymoon period, followed by a gradual cooling-off and plenty of bickering before they finally split. Part of the problem is the fact that Shirin has not told her family that she likes women as well as men; it infuriates Maxine, who is proud of the fact that she herself is out, even though it has led to estrangement from her family. Shirin is reticent, partly because she knows the reaction of her parents will be negative, and perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her own sexual preferences: she sleeps with both men and women during the course of the film, and tells people that she is bisexual, but she seems to derive little or no pleasure from men and a lot more from women. There’s also a sweet subplot about Shirin’s new job as a movie-making teacher in a Park Slope kindergarten, which culminates in one of the funnier scenes I’ve seen this year, a stellar takedown of pretension that comes laced with cringeworthy embarrassment and juvenile fart jokes. The whole ‘break up and move on’ thing may be nothing new, but this is a good example of the way an unusual perspective can breathe new life into such a story, and Akhavan is a very funny writer and performer. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it: Appropriate Behaviour is several minutes short of an-hour-and-a-half, and I could have happily sat through way more.
Directed by: Desiree Akhavan.
Written by: Desiree Akhavan.
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Scott Adsit.
Cinematography: Chris Teague.
Editing: Sarah Shaw.
Music: Josephine Wiggs.
Running Time: 85 minutes.