Film, 2014, 4 stars
Written and Directed: Desiree Akhavan
Well, well, well... This is going to polarise people, and there's nothing more I love in film.
Famously, Desiree Akhavan made this film as the thesis component of her Master's in Fine Arts, and to some extent it shows. She's a raw voice, telling a story that's borderline narcissistic (and perhaps a touch biographical?), using amateur actors and making her share of production mistakes. On the flip side, there's a rawness to this film not seen in so long - a real passion for the subject despite her flaws and failings, something that feels like it is trying to add something to the life of queer cinema.
Just to put it out there though, Appropriate Behavior contains no likeable characters at all. None. Desiree Akhavan plays the lead, Shirin, a Brooklyn-based bisexual Iranian who pays lip service to her culture more to disparage it than anything else. Shirin, when we meet her, has just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine, who she gradually realises as she moves through the fog of her own grief and self pity that she really did love and treated abominably.
For her part, Maxine (played with flashes of brilliance by Rebecca Henderson) is sarcastic, preachy, negative and often condescending. She's out and proud, and struggles with the fact that Shirin can't bear to tell the obvious truth to her conservative, traditional Iranian parents. While the relationship between the two of them does have its moments of sweetness - dancing together at Shirin's Iranian New Year's party was a highlight - mostly the story tells of their troubles and their breakup.
Facing her lowest ebb, Shirin takes a job teaching basic filmmaking to a bunch of precocious 5-year-olds, something that at first drives her crazy but forces her for the first time to make something difficult really work, and her victory with these kids gives a glimmer of hope that some self-respect is starting to break through the haze of her grief-stricken life.
The narrative is told in the present day with a series of flashbacks, juxtaposing Shirin's present-day anger-fuelled misbehaviour with her self-centred antics of her past. The film is as disjointed and disarrayed as Shirin herself, with no obvious narrative driver and what can only be described as an incomplete ending.
And yet... for all these negatives, it's quite an amazing film, and I don't think I understood how much I liked it until almost a day after I watched it. It had a chance to sink in, the poignancy of Shirin's ability to keep falling down and keep picking herself up again stayed with me. The character, while being completely unlikeable, extends somehow beyond the screen.
I started thinking of my own twenties, that period of life when everything seems both so easy and so difficult. Shirin feels like she's not accepted anywhere - too gay for her parents, not gay enough for her girlfriend. She has a rebellion against her own sense of identity, and every human interaction along the way (a disastrous first date, a misguided threesome, some bad internet dating, a horrible attempt to make Maxine jealous) is frank, darkly funny and memorable. The sex is in your face, as unflinching as the character herself. Akhavan is not interested in repressing her heroine. Shirin's choices might not always be great, and often she regrets them, but they are always her choices, and she fiercely defends her right to make them.
It's worth remembering in the end that the flashback structure means that Maxine's character is told almost entirely through Shirin's viewpoint. There's room for us to wonder, since Maxine does get nicer towards the end of the film, whether Shirin's recollection of her is as flawed as she is, and as she learns more about herself, she understands better who Maxine really was.
To enjoy this movie you have to accept Shirin almost more than she accepts herself, and that can be hard, and not everyone is going to want to. But the hyper-self involvement of Shirin is the whole point. This is a comedy and a pointed statement. She needs to go through this to come out the other side, and staying with her is a rewarding ride.