Appropriate Behavior is a proper audience divider. Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is narcissistic, self-obsessed and shallow, but convinced she’s deep, complex and misunderstood. However, how you take the film depends on how self-aware you think it is. Is it on Shirin’s side and lauding the life of the tragically hip, or is it well aware of her shortcomings and essentially satirising it?
I’d safely say it’s the latter, but I can see why have assumed the former, as the film’s humour is dry as a bone and so it’s not too shocking some viewers have missed it.
Shirin is a second-generation Iranian-American bisexual, something she’s likes to tell people at every opportunity – except her parents, who are well aware she’s Iranian but have no idea she likes ladies as well as gents. She’s just broken up with her girlfriend and is now looking for a new direction in life, which she fills with a series of sexual encounters and a new relationship, while trying to figure out what went wrong with her old relationship.
At first I have to admit I found the movie a little annoying, as it does seem to be on Shirin’s side, treating her dim-witted bluntness as honesty and her pretentiousness as a yearning to live life outside the boundaries of normality. However while it takes a while to realise (due to how dry it is), it becomes apparent that the movie knows full well that this is a woman whose depth of character may be largely in her own mind, and her issues may well be of her own making. By the time her new girlfriend suggests her bisexuality is just a phase – something that in most circumstances would be extremely insulting to bisexuals – in this context you can understand it, as Shirin is just the sort of person you could imagine would date women to be interesting rather than due to genuine desire.
That may all sound interminable – after all, who wants to watch a movie about such a dreadful sounding person? – but Shirin still manages to be sympathetic, as while she may be blind to her own flaws, she wants to be a better and happier person, but just has few clues how to be. The fact that it slowly reveals itself to be surprisingly witty helps the film too, so that you can be both on Shirin’s side and totally against her at the same time.
There are some extremely effective scenes and situations, most notably a less than successful threesome, which finds its tension in having three people who are all there for different reasons, none of which really match, and none of which are ever spoken out loud. It’s cleverly and subtly done, and really rather funny, while also managing to be pretty sexy.
It is a film that has a very indie sensibility (another reason why some will think it wants to be as tragically hip as its main character), but it works extremely well, with the editing style feeling like you’re dipping in and out of someone’s life.
It’s the first film from writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan, which is another reason some might mistake this for something far more self-obsessed that it is – after all, she wouldn’t have been the first artist to write and direct a film that’s essentially about awesome they are, but told through the eyes of a thinly veiled alter-ego. However Akhavan knows what she’s doing, touching on plenty of very real issues, from sexuality to being the child of immigrants, but smartly showing that just because you’ve got those things on your résumé, it isn’t a ‘Get out of jail free card’ if you’re not a rounded, sorted person, and it doesn’t automatically mean you win all arguments.
Overall Verdict: You do need to appreciate dry wit to get much out of Appropriate Behavior, but if you do, you’ll enjoy its look at someone who thinks they’re too cool for their own good (while in denial about that, of course) learning that perhaps there’s more to life than the interior of their own head.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac