Okay, so like I guess this could be called a romantic comedy, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s not about falling in love but about falling out of love, told with copious flashbacks interwoven into a tale of a woman coming to terms with a broken relationship (not an abusive one, or a bad one, just one that didn’t quite work out). I think it’s telling that the first time I saw the trailer I thought the film sounded hilarious (it is, just FYI) and desperately wanted to see it, but the second time what I noticed was all the awkwardness and angst. The comedy is of an observational style that derives a lot of humour as much from what characters don’t say (though the one-liners are great and eminently quotable), and the awkward pauses in their conversations. If it feels like this has been mined by a lot of recent work (and there seems to be some kind of obligatory requirement to mention Lena Dunham’s Girls TV show, on which our present film’s director-writer-star Desiree Akhavan has had a small role) then Appropriate Behavior makes it fresh and interesting by its perspective on a bisexual Iranian-American woman’s point of view (the previously introduced ever-more-multi-hyphenate Akhavan). And this could be the premise for something terribly earnest (or earnestly terrible), but any of that is quickly disarmed by Akhavan’s (or her character, Shirin’s) self-deprecation.
So the milieu is at once familiar — stalking the hipster Brooklyn bars and streets of many previous films and TV shows, and presenting some WASPy white faces (there’s a brief role for Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) and reference-points (Sex and the City) — but just twisting them enough to make them strange. Adsit’s character, for example, is a well-meaning nice guy but a terrible parent, while another earnest young white woman (named Tibet, who like Shirin is teaching filmmaking to children) functions as a kind of critique of a whole strand of entitled feminist performativity… but not, it should be stated, in a mean way! Because that’s the thing, the film presents all these different viewpoints — whether familiar as I’ve mentioned already, or unusual, like Shirin’s family life in New Jersey and her wider social group of Iranian-Americans — but everyone in it acts in an understandable and identifiable way. Akhavan doesn’t let Shirin off the hook either, for if anything the film’s whole arc is to track the evolution and maturation of Shirin’s behaviour in her relationships (hence the title). So the outcome — like last year’s quite different but equally refreshing New York-set comedy Obvious Child — is to make me the viewer just want to hang out with all these cool people and be friends with them on their terms. Except the white dudes, who are all uniformly terrible. But that’s fine with me.
POSTSCRIPT: You can see more of Akhavan’s work in her webseries The Slope with Ingrid Jungermann (who seems like she might have been a model for Appropriate Behavior‘s Maxine), which is all here and which I can totally recommend, having now watched them. At its core, or at least where it begins, is the premise of ‘homophobic’ lesbians, playing with a lot of the labels and people’s sensitivity towards them (which is totally necessary and important, but also a fruitful area for comedy it turns out). But even here, starting in 2010, there’s plenty of really great one-liners which deserve to be quoted everywhere and widely. If I had a Tumblr, this week it would all be gifsets from this.
Director/Writer Desiree Akhavan; Cinematographer Chris Teague; Starring Desiree Akhavan; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 27 February 2015.