Dark but hilarious Lena Dunham-endorsed comedy about a woman struggling with her sexuality
Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour begins with a twenty-something woman chucking a strap-on dildo into a dustbin. It’s a punchy opening to the actor-director-writer’s much-hyped debut feature film, which after its premiere at 2014’s Sundance Festival, led Girls star Lena Dunham to offer Akhavan a part in her show’s latest series. The parallels with Girls‘ deadpan realism are obvious. Based in New York, Appropriate Behaviour tells the awkwardly comic, semi-autobiographical story of Shirin (played by Akhavan), a smart but self-involved young woman who feels detached from her own existence.
Shirin, the bisexual daughter of Iranian immigrants, is suffering in the aftermath of her first relationship with a woman. She has just broken up with Maxine (Canadian actress Rebecca Henderson), and is questioning her career: she reckons she was only hired by a newspaper in the interests of equal opportunities, so instead gets a job teaching filmmaking to six-year-olds. They make her lessons a misery. Shirin is directionless and struggling – traits that Akhavan neatly illustrates in a tense early exchange with her more successful older brother, a doctor, who goads, “You got a masters in journalism, and now you’re gonna do jack shit with it?”
Akhavan – herself a Persian-American bisexual former film student – darts between past and present, illuminating Shirin’s uncomfortable relationship via cutting flashbacks, with a structure similar to Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall. One scene in a bookshop is a particularly obvious and well-executed homage to Allen’s masterpiece, which Akhavan has cited as an influence. In another, we see the couple’s first meeting, on a doorstep outside a party they’ve both left because of “social anxiety”. “I like girls like you,” Shirin tells Maxine, “Manly, but also a bit like a lady.”
The haphazard nature of the switches between past and present can be difficult to follow, but the flashbacks are effective nonetheless. On Maxine’s birthday, Shirin’s difficulties with her sexuality and her family’s strict Persian values are unflinchingly exposed. “You’re ruining my birthday!” Maxine spits during a row about Shirin’s reluctance to tell her parents about their relationship. “You’re ruining my twenties,” comes Shirin’s devastating response. The scenes set in the present are funnier. Shirin fumbles through an excruciating one-night stand with a humourless hipster and an explicit, near-wordless threesome with a kinky middle-aged couple. She gradually becomes less self-absorbed, even making inroads with the kids in her filmmaking class. Shirin is embarrassing, horribly self-absorbed, loving and, ultimately, confused. The sense that Akhavan is drawing from experience is palpable, and her story is moving. Far from another trendy comedy, Appropriate Behaviour is sharp, charming and crammed full of life, warts and all.