For all the boisterous proclamations celebrating the diversity within the hallowed avenues of New York City, very few remnants in the media take full measures to cultivate an accurate image of life in the boroughs beyond that of the typical, heterosexual, white 20-something. With “Appropriate Behavior,” first-time writer and director Desiree Akhavan opts not to wholly refurbish this infamous NYC archetype. Rather, while adhering to the postmillennial malaise that has infamously become synonymous with Lena Dunham and the critically acclaimed HBO sitcom “Girls” (whose cast Akhavan will join this upcoming season), Akhavan’s feature-length debut effortlessly straddles the line between her hyphenated cultural identities while still condemning the status quo of the trust-fund Brooklyn hipster.
“Appropriate Behavior” explores the multitudes of Shirin (played delightfully by Akhavan herself) — a wittily sardonic bisexual, Persian American woman — through a series of off-kilter vignettes. Off the heels of a failed long-term relationship with the impassioned yet downbeat Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), Shirin is forced to navigate the ramifications of her failed relationship – moving out of their shared abode, struggling through the dubious forays of romance in the OKCupid era — and, most tellingly, is vexed as to how to move past her breakup, devising a string of ridiculous schemes to win Maxine back or at least piss her off in the process.
Akhavan’s depiction of Shirin is as affable as it is aggravating, her aimlessness tinged with a proclivity to appease others. Whether it be partaking in a kinky one-night three-way involving latex suit fetishes, or covering up her taboo romance and living situation with Maxine as some sort of cosmopolitan, Italian-influenced trend to her old-timey, conservative Iranian parents, Shirin decidedly aims to please. As a queer woman of color coming from an Iranian background, she is aware — almost to a fault — of the conflict of interest she must face as she traverses the murky waters of simultaneously appeasing her familial culture and her (now-ex) girlfriend. Though postbreakup Shirin is no longer placed at this crossroads of identity and sexuality, she must face the quest for her own identity alone, without any of the expectations imposed upon her by her traditional upbringing or her lesbian romance.
“Appropriate Behavior” succeeds as much as a personal piece as a denouement of the stereotypically self-absorbed New Yorker that Akhavan has invariably dealt with during her life in the Big Apple. At one point in the film, Shirin interviews for a job as a film teacher for the kindergarten-aged children of Park Slope yuppies. During the interview, her interviewer, a failed stockbroker turned casual drug purveyor named Ken, somehow manages to drop an allusion to a VICE article he read on Tehran’s underground hip-hop scene upon his discovery of her Iranian ethnic background, a startlingly uncanny summation of the bigoted pretense to which too many faux-cultured snobs succumb.
Akhavan’s work, while it succeeds as a revisionist view on the Dunham brand of life in New York City, occasionally drops the ball when it loses its self-awareness through the plethora of Brooklyn hipster tropes, all of which have been regurgitated ad nauseam since hipster culture became en vogue. Over the course of the film, we meet an exorbitant number of solipsistic, apathetic “artists” with beards, the occasional chest tattoo and their own installment art or pseudo-social justice cause. Even for Brooklyn, the number of unaware, pretentious snobs Akhavan writes in without any clear intent is grating, eventually dulling the potency of her qualms.
“Can you tell just by looking at me that I’m dead inside?” Shirin offhandedly remarks to her close friend Crystal (Haley Feiffer) early on in the film once she is fully moved out of the apartment she once shared with Maxine. Though Shirin is often plagued with the need to balance her vastly complex, diverging identities — the flawless Persian daughter with a master’s degree, the submissively sexual goddess on the hunt for some old-style romance and the antipathetic cool of her New Yorker image — Akhavan’s own captivating identity throughout “Appropriate Behavior” is always present.
“Appropriate Behavior” is now showing at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco
Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected].