Appropriate Behavior, directed by first time director Desiree Akhavan, is a confident and charming film about a young woman struggling with her conflicting identities. The movie watches her try and grapple with her family’s wishes of her becoming an ideal Persian daughter and her desire to fit into the Brooklyn culture while dealing with her under-the- radar bisexuality. It’s a film about growing up, fitting in, and being frank about all of the mishaps and pitfalls along the way.
We’re introduced to Shirin (Akhavan) after she’s been dumped by her girlfriend and is moving out of their shared apartment. She’s left in an awkward place of aimlessness. Her brother is in a serious, committed relationship, she’s about to quit her job, is living on her friend’s couch, and desperately wants to win back the affections of her ex, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The movie runs in two parallel narratives: one is Maxine and Shirin meeting and falling in love and then ultimately breaking up, and the other is Shirin tediously trying to overcome her self-doubts and heartache.
Akhavan isn’t afraid of her characters being unlikable, and it wasn’t rare for me to be rolling my eyes at Shirin’s actions or comments throughout the film, but most of the annoyance comes from a recognizable place. Family members gossip, and people say stupid things and try to foolishly justify what they said when really they should just say sorry. People mope around after breaking up with someone they loved, or even liked. People are messy, they take jobs they aren’t properly fitted for, and they latch onto constants in their lives even if they’re toxic or illogical. People are scared and like Shirin, people try to laugh through it. Shirin isn’t always a likable character, but she’s an interesting one and she’s a relatable one. Akhavan plays Shirin with just enough insecurity and charm, and I can’t help but be curious to see where her career takes her next. She has an interesting voice that cinema doesn’t hear enough of.
What is so spectacular and yet understated about Appropriate Behavior is how a typically under-represented portion of the LGBTQ community is given such a ubiquitous spotlight. There aren’t a whole lot of bisexual characters in film or television, and when there are they’re usually given the “it’s a phase” treatment. Bisexuality isn’t a term as embraced as being gay or lesbian because it makes it so it’s difficult to put a person into a specific box. There’s a fluidity to the term that makes it so that people grow uncomfortable with it. This film treats it like it’s natural. Our leading lady likes men, she likes women, and it’s as simple as that. As equally significant is how her heritage is a spotlight without being definitive, and when characters try and define her by where she was born it’s quickly turned into a joke on them, rather than her.
The humor isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but it’s singular and youthful. Moments such as Maxine and Shirin getting high while lying in bed and making absurd jokes or people failing to pronounce Shirin’s name correctly, or Shirin interacting awkwardly with party guests who abandon her as soon as someone new shows up, are all funny moments that will likely resonate with a certain crowd. It’s a film that gets women and how unfunny and awkward and embarrassed we can be. Moments such as a botched threesome get to the heart of Shirin’s self-conscious nature, and the brief relationship she sparks up with the girlfriend could have fueled an entire film. It’s what makes up for some of the lesser moments, such as when Shirin goes to buy a bra and is forced to endure a lecture about loving her breasts no matter the size. Here I was excited to see a female character who didn’t feel the need to bother with a bra. It also makes up for the teaching subplot where she’s supposed to make a film with a class of five-year-olds. It’s cute in parts but ultimately seems sidelined compared to the richer storyline of Shirin trying to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.
Not all of the jokes land, and some of the acting is questionably one-note, but it’s a film that’s left me thinking. It’s a film offering us a rare perspective and highlighting why having female perspectives, LGBTQ perspectives, and minority perspectives as a whole are so woefully missed and so entirely necessary. The script could have been tidier; I would have liked to see more of her family and friendships because both are often integral to a person Shirin’s age. Despite these nitpicks, Appropriate Behavior succeeds because it allows its lead to fail, to embarrass herself, and to find happiness in equal measure.