Review: Appropriate Behaviour

This week, I was lucky enough to be able to preview an exciting new film ahead of its UK release on Friday. Appropriate Behaviour is a deadpan indie comedy written, directed by and starring Desiree Akhavan. Set in Brooklyn, it centres around one woman’s quest to come to terms with the recent break up with her girlfriend. A movie made by a bisexual woman about a bisexual character that she both wrote and portrays? Now this I had to see! The summary in the press release also intrigued me:

Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is struggling to behave as an ideal Persian daughter; politically correct and bisexual, being part of her family isn’t easy. She finds acceptance eludes her from all sides: her family doesn’t know her sexuality, and her ex, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), can’t understand why she doesn’t tell them. Even the six-year-old boys in her moviemaking class are too ADD to focus on her for more than a second. Following a family announcement of her brother’s betrothal to a parentally approved Iranian prize catch, Shirin embarks on a private rebellion involving a series of escapades, while trying to decipher what went wrong with Maxine.

I was drawn in from the very first scene, but I won’t spoil it for you by saying exactly why. Straight away I empathised with Shirin having to deal with over protective parents and an over achieving brother, whilst getting over her ex, finding a job and a new place to live. Even if you’ve never been in similar situations, or don’t know anyone who has, it’s easy to put yourself in her shoes. The cringe-inducing scenarios – of which there are many! – are beautifully handled, and the way Shirin keeps putting her foot in it is so very believable. She’s honest, goofy and likeable, never really trying to be cool like so many of the other people she meets. I’ve not watched Girls but, from what I’ve heard about it, I can see why comparisons to this film and Lena Dunham’s work have been drawn. Hipster Brooklyn is lovingly but hilariously portrayed – the scene in the cooperative could have been from sketch-show Portlandia – and anyone who lives somewhere like East London will instantly see reality rather than exaggeration.

The direction was great and I loved Akhavan’s use of items or situations from the present to subtly link to scenes that were from a time when Shirin and Maxine were together. Their relationship is presented in a realistic way so you can see the fun with the flaws, and I swung between seeing why Shirin wanted Maxine back to wondering why they ever got together in the first place. There are so many fantastic moments with great lines in this movie that I have to resist the temptation to list them. Some feature Shirin’s best friend Crystal, some involve strangers, and some feature Shirin’s family – her relationship with them is an interesting one, not least because she is not out about her sexuality. She introduces Maxine as her friend, and continues this awkward charade even when her parents come to see the one bedroom apartment they have moved into. Despite her obvious love for her parents, a couple of family gatherings provide insight into how little Shirin feels she fits in, and a conversation with a prospective employer further illustrates the distance between the New Yorker and her Iranian background.

Desiree Akhavan has created a wonderful first film, with so many beautifully captured moments that will have the audience both laughing out loud and cringing with “OMG, I’ve totally done that” embarrassment. It’s a clever and engaging comedy with urban young women’s experiences at the heart of the story, and I’m sure its appeal will extend far beyond New York and London. However, despite all this brilliance, there were a couple of lines that made me feel uncomfortable that I feel are worth flagging here. During a serious conversation in one of the flashback scenes, Maxine says that she’s thinking of transitioning into a man… before then declaring that she’s only joking. Later, in a clearly queer space, Maxine sits down next to a rather blandly dressed man who explains his presence there by saying that he’s “not an FTM transsexual”, he’s there because he lost a bet with his sister. Both of these lines felt unnecessary and jarring, leaving me uneasy for the rest of the scene. It’s a shame that the obvious care taken in this film’s creation didn’t quite extend to every part of the LGBTQ community.

I understand that Appropriate Behaviour centres on only one woman’s experience and it’s nice that Akhavan acknowledges the other ‘Others’, however, I can’t help but think that there will have been ways to do this that don’t make jokes about trans folk. It could be argued that lesbians and bisexuals are the butt of far more jokes in the film, however, the film is predominantly about bisexual and lesbian characters so this is not especially problematic. Joking about transitioning and the use of the phrase FTM transsexual – as opposed to, for example, trans man – most definitely are. Representation of trans, especially trans masculine, identities is thin on the ground within mainstream media and so it’s a pity this was poorly executed.

Overall, Appropriate Behaviour is a wonderfully entertaining film. There were so many fabulously funny scenes that they will have had no trouble finding positive reviews to quote on the poster and, hopefully, this will translate into ticket sales too. I connected with this film emotionally in the same way as Zach Braff’s first movie Garden State – which, like Akhavan, he wrote, directed and starred in – but have to say I prefer the way Appropriate Behaviour ends. Of course I can’t really explain why without spoilers, so you’ll just have to go and watch this highly recommended film yourself.

Appropriate Behaviour is in UK cinemas from Friday 6th March 2015.

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