It’s difficult to describe Appropriate Behavior without using titles like Broad City & Obvious Child as reference points, but those comparisons truly do the film a disservice, as it’s much more emotionally satisfying than either of those titles (both of which I like very much). True, Appropriate Behavior is yet another raunchy, sex-obsessed comedy-drama centered on a New York City woman-child struggling to figure her shit out, but there’s something uniquely direct & honest about its approach to this aesthetic that distinguishes it from its peers. Its authenticity might have a lot to do with the overall strength of the writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan, who delivers the material as if she’s lived it before, but what’s really arresting is the crippling, all-too-common sadness that anchors the story. The details of the protagonist’s Shirin’s lifestyle & personality may be specific, but her heartache is universal & familiar.
Shirin is a young, bisexual Brooklynite party girl with a journalism degree & Persian heritage. Not everyone is going to relate to certain aspects of her sex life, such as safe-words, strap-ons, group play and hiding her sexuality from her Iranian-born parents. However, the film’s central romantic conflict is an about as universal as they come. Appropriate Behavior details the depressing, gradual detangling of two people exiting a long term relationship. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell solely on the couple’s post break-up gloom, but instead adopts a flashback structure that allows it to show the former couple in better times, like in a flirtatious exchange when the first meet where Shirin says, “I find your anger incredibly sexy. I hate so many things too.” When the broken relationship Shirin’s mourning is first detailed it looks too toxic to be worth the heartache. The flashbacks reveal that it was at one time something playful, something worth saving. It allows the film to run through the entire cycle of a romantic tryst from first meeting to fucking to fighting to eventual dissolution.
Although the universal relatability of this cycle is what makes the film affecting, it’s the specificity of Shirin’s world that makes it special. The film’s Brooklyn setting provides a lot of room for lampooning of ludicrous personalities like social justice comedians, Kickstarter gurus, pothead businessmen, and absurdly pretentious performance artists. Shirin’s open, playful sexuality is an invitation into a world of group sex, kink play, and drag queens. Her Persian heritage is a window into both the culture’s familial intimacy & rituals as well as its malignant homophobia. At the center of this Venn diagram is a very relatable Shirin. She calls Brooklyn hipsters out on their nonsense, asking “What is up with your placid disinterest in everything?” She laughs in the faces of people who take their kink play seriously and finds a way to reconcile her sexuality with her family in a somewhat disheartening “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of equilibrium. A lot of Shirin’s life goals amount to “a good time”, which is more than understandable for a woman in her twenties.
It’s incredible how much Shirin’s zest for fun shines through when Appropriate Behavior finds her in such a dark time. It’s a familiar balance to anyone who’s experienced true heartbreak: trying to party away the pain like it doesn’t matter, but the superficial hedonism always feeling empty. She pretends like she doesn’t care, but she continuously ends up alone & hurt after the high. No matter your relation to the specifics of Shirin’s background & lifestyle, it’s easy to see yourself in her sadness when she curls up in a ball and says, “I’m going to lie here and forget what it feels like to be loved. Could you please turn off the light?” It’s a sadness that feels like it’s never going to fade, but it always does . . . eventually. Shirin can’t move past it until she gets wrapped up in her own project, a distraction that finally allows her to let go of the past. The thing that saves her? An elaborate fart joke. That’s the exact kind of clash between emotional devastation & goofball irreverence that makes Desiree Akhavan’s debut such a strong, relatable film, even for those worlds apart from her protagonist’s exact circumstances.