How many Iranian-Americans do you see walking down the street with a giant strap-on in the opening credits of a movie? Not many. However, Desiree Akhavan uncompromisingly takes initiative from her own life story to produce, direct and act in this quirky, witty and genuinely heart-warming story about the consequences of love; woe, oblivion and remorse, titled Appropriate Behaviour.
Yes, this is the film that has been plagued by Lena Dunham Girls’ comparisons which may stick a fork in the movie before even viewing for some. Why do we need another twenty-something becoming the voice of our generation when we already have one? Well maybe because the specifics of Akhavan’s ethnic self-identity could be one hardly touched by powerful women in the media, but a relevant occurrence in today’s Westernised society. Women of such a background, need a niche woman in media to resonate with – maybe qualities that a scantily clad Beyonce or the girl next door Jennifer Aniston are unable to offer.
The film in its entirety features beautifully induced flash back scenes of the protagonist Shirin (played by Akhavan) who in happier times is obliviously in love with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Set in the typical backdrop of achingly cool yet cliché hipster New York, Shirin struggles to contend with being a bisexual Iranian-American. The struggle is further reinforced by her obnoxious older brother Ali who arrogantly enough knows he’s the perfect East meets West example of success – an amazing job and a beautiful fiancé in tow, he feels a heightened need to rub it in the face of his pitiful younger sister.
Shirin in return reluctantly feels the pressure of sticking to traditional family values much to Maxine’s demanding disappointment. Empty promises about unveiling her double life to her family go empty from Shirin’s end. Maxine’s need to be fully loved and emotionally appreciated by another woman results in one alcohol fuelled night in particular where she blindly makes out with a random man at a party, all in front of the stunned eyes of Shirin. What Shirin once described Maxine as being a ‘gold star lesbian’ becomes washed with dissatisfaction and unhonest passion.
The once happy relationship starts to wither resulting in the dissolution of the union. You can also sense the true frustration when Maxine questions her girlfriend about her bi-sexuality – “This is only a phase for you” such comments are rendered from her mouth, hurting the already down on her luck Shirin. She tries to distance herself with her new job of teaching a camera techniques class which yet again is another alarmingly refreshing ‘spanner in the works’ moment.
Instead of teenagers, she’s given a group of five year old boys, who would rather run riot than act like the example girls group across the hall. Ironically enough, that particular class is led by Crystal – ‘a former hair model’, who much to her devastation ends up being Maxine’s new picture perfect flame. The plunge into more sexual contact is desperately deemed on her end to numb the pain, which leads to one awkward threesome encounter – a stark contrast from ones fantasy.
Inevitably, there is one scene in particular which pulls in the whole story – Shirin who at this point is so distraught by the loss of Maxine picks up the courage to confide in her mom that she’s “a little bit gay“. Her mum in return chuckles to herself and offers no supportive reaction, choosing to ignore her admission of sexuality. And that would probably be the reaction of many traditional Persian mothers living in the West – finding this brave confession not worthy of a reaction.
However, Shirin finds the situation a much needed source of relief. As time moves on, she finds herself slowly succumbing to a remarkable source of infectious happiness and inevitably she sees Maxine on a train platform where she offers a friendly wave and receives one in return. That for her and us the viewing public is the closure we need to understand the journey of a young woman living in a dog-eat-god city yet been raised on a traditional foundation of religion.
Needless to say, Desiree Akhavan as a writer is astounding. What one might think of her as her best material in the movie used in the trailer, are wrong. There’s a dazzling array of quick witted one-liners, sarcastically fresh conversations and elements of spontaneity. Her razor sharp intelligence soars through and her use of cinematography is significantly appealing – young or old. There’s a certain magnetism to her approach which may be lost in the initial promotion of her work.
It’s rough to see all young women filmmakers being categorized in the same group and Akhavan does her best to distance herself from these similarities. This is the type of the movie where you may just watch to kill a lull in your day but end up congratulating yourself with your use of time. An extraordinary first effort on Desiree Akhavan’s part which leaves you wanting more from her incredible future film career.