I was running late for the screening of Appropriate Behavior because I was dealing with my own lesbian drama. We fortunately made it on time and didn’t miss the opening scene in which protagonist Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) is moving out of the apartment she shared with her girlfriend and carries their strap-on in one hand, back to the camera, along the streets of Brooklyn – prompting my friend to nudge me and say, “This is already the greatest film of all time.”
While that may not be the case, Appropriate Behavior is immediately likeable and difficult to fault. Structured as a series of vignettes that flow in and out of chronology, we follow Shirin as she breaks up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), meets her for the first time, tries to make her jealous and get her back, all knitted together with scenes of Shirin’s Iranian family or teaching film class to 5 year olds. The quick cuts between scenes that are perfectly paced means the film never feels slow or tired and we are always given something new to work with. The inclusion of the film class sub-plot in which we watch Shirin make a short entitled ‘Tale of the Lost Fart’ is delightfully funny and balances out the harder emotional scenes.
It would be easy to say that Appropriate Behavior is what would happen if Lena Dunham made Annie Hall but with lesbians. It wouldn’t even be wrong, but Akhavan stands on her own as she queers the genre. Akhavan’s thesis film for her Masters of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts, it is all the more remarkable for a directorial debut. Made on a tiny budget, with filming only lasting 18 days, it is as surprising as it is impressive. The film deals with some reasonably unlikable characters, Maxine particularly, but Akhavan’s performance, Shirin’s desire for Maxine, means that we as an audience understand her appeal. With a supporting cast that includes characters like permanently stoned dead-beat dad Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock fame) and a self-proclaimed “stand up-folk music hybrid artist” it is a movie that while covering familiar territory, never feels tired.
There aren’t that many films that deal with queer female relationships, at least not those made from a queer perspective. The ones that are out there usually aren’t very good. To describe Appropriate Behavior as refreshing falls short. While the story of the smart but awkward girl from Brooklyn has been done before, Akhavan’s film isn’t like what has come before. Mainly due to the dialogue and Akhavan’s delivery. When Shirin and Maxine smoke pot together, we are told there are two types of people: those who like Sex and the City and those who like Lord of the Rings. During their big fight, Maxine tells Shirin she’s ruining her birthday, Shirin replies “You’re ruining my twenties.” The dialogue is both sharply funny and deeply resonant. The sex scenes in the film are impressive and important and are another reason Akhavan’s film is not like the others. Akhavan doesn’t shy away from showing lesbian sex, but it’s not gratuitous, over the top Blue is the Warmest Colour sex either. The threesome in the film, like the whole film itself, flows in and out of heat and passion into extreme awkwardness (like threesomes usually do). Akhavan also doesn’t force Shirin into denying her bisexuality, having her sleep with men and having that matter. Conflict in the film of course comes from Shirin being too gay for her parents, but not feeling quite gay enough for her girlfriend.
So many queer films are structured around the coming out narrative – person realises they are gay, person comes out and the third act is conflict resolution (for better or worse) – this film flows in and out of vignettes and defies the classic modes of queer representation. The emotionality of the film is not exclusively reliant on Shirin’s difficulty with coming out to her Iranian parents – although this isn’t ignored either – instead it is to do with a regrettable break up, something everyone, gay and straight, can relate to. Despite this relatability that comes from representing relationships in an honest way, Akhavan’s film is filled with nods to those of us in the audience who like Maxine, as she tells Shirin in their endearing meet-cute, have moved in with a girl after four months of dating only to find out they miss their ex or who have had arguments over who gets to keep the dildo. Queer people are always looking for themselves on screen and Appropriate Behavior feels like the first film in a long time that is speaking to us.
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