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D: Desiree Akhavan / 86m

Cast: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Ryan Fitzsimmons, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Justine Cotsonas, Scott Adsit, Maryann Urbano, Aimee Mullins, Rosalie Lowe, James C. Bristow

The basic premise of Appropriate Behavior, the feature debut of director, producer, screenwriter and actress Desiree Akhavan, is one that many of us will be familiar with: the break-up of that all-important first, serious relationship. This being an indie romantic comedy-drama, though, there’s an inevitable twist, but one that Akhavan handles with a great deal of skill: her central character, Shirin (Akhavan), is a bisexual woman of Iranian heritage struggling to make sense of her relationships –  familial, social, emotional – while attempting to deal with the fallout from a relationship that she thought was going well. So with all the usual relationship issues to deal with, Shirin also has to find a way of dealing with the way her sexuality impacts on her life (and the lives of those around her), and the entrenched beliefs of her family. (There’s nothing like stacking the odds against a character for a bit of extra added dramatic effect.)

At the start of the movie, Shirin’s relationship with Maxine (Henderson) has ended after a bitter falling out over Shirin’s inability to come out to her parents, and other issues surrounding Maxine’s expectations of their relationship. Shirin finds herself homeless, unemployed, newly single, and still maintaining a façade with her morally strict, culturally retentive parents (Duong, Majd). Thanks to her friend, Crystal (Feiffer), Shirin finds a place to live, renting a room in an apartment owned by a couple of avant-garde performance artists. In time, she also finds a job (of sorts) teaching movie making to five year olds (only in New York…). But working her way through the minefield of her emotions proves to be far more complex and demanding a proposition than she could have ever imagined. First there are her residual feelings for Maxine, which prompt Shirin to try and win her back. Second, there’s the expectations of her family, muted yet still supportive on her parents’ side, more acerbic on her brother’s side (Shirin’s mother: “She was the only freshman in high school who could swim in the varsity team. And she didn’t even take lessons.” Shirin’s brother: “Wow! That’s a real resumé builder right there”). And then there’s the further burden of trying to date and possibly build a new relationship from scratch.

Shirin really doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going, and it’s this confusion that drives the movie forward, as Akhavan puts her heroine through the wringer in one embarrassing scene/encounter after another. Shirin is the kind of rootless, semi-aimless twenty-something who should be annoying because of her general lack of self-awareness, and passive-resistant personality. But Akhavan is clever enough to balance Shirin’s less attractive qualities with a genuine likeability borne out of the character’s underlying vulnerability; she’s someone you can imagine spending time with and enjoying the experience. The same might not be true for Shirin, though, as she’s always looking for that deeper, more permanent connection that will help her make sense of her place in the world. If only she can make that connection, she reasons, then everything else will fall into place.

Of course, nothing is that easy, and Shirin finds that making the kind of progress in her life that she needs to, is hampered by the whims and foibles and personal idiosyncrasies of the people around her. Maxine is more self-contained and outwardly confident, but has an ambition that may or may not be her life’s goal; if it is then it’s going to make her relationship with Shirin that much more complicated (Akhavan deftly avoids dealing with this issue in just the way people would do in real life). Her friend, Crystal, is very supportive but doesn’t have any answers, while her parents occupy a protective bubble of their own making, equally as supportive as Crystal but equally as lacking in answers. Shirin attempts to connect with new people, such as party pick-up Henry (Bristow), and sexually adventurous couple Brendan (Fitzsimmons) and Jackie (Urbano), but she’s so unaware of what she really wants that her discomfort really shows through (the threesome scene is perhaps the most awkward, uncomfortable ménage à trois ever portrayed in a movie). Throughout it all, Akhavan keeps Shirin moving forward, even if she has no real sense of direction and is just doing her best to connect with whomever comes along.

One of the best things about Appropriate Behavior is the way in which Shirin’s bisexuality isn’t an issue but a statement of fact that needs no further examination. It may explain her pan-sexual approach to relationships (casual or otherwise), but it’s not an “issue” as it might have been in the hands of less intuitive movie makers (Akhavan has based much of her movie on her own experiences but Shirin’s story isn’t autobiographical). With this acceptance set up from the beginning, the movie is free to explore the issues and crises and dynamics of modern day relationships. If there is a message Akhavan is trying to get across it’s that contemporary relationships rise and fall in often spectacular fashion because individual selfishness always gets in the way. Shirin may be looking for love, but like Maxine (with whom she has much more in common than she realises), it has to be on her own terms and to meet her needs before her partner’s. With the inevitable clashes that will always arise from this kind of emotional dynamic, it’s no wonder that Shirin feels stranded and unfulfilled.

Akhavan proves equally adept at comedy as she does with drama, and peppers her script with some terrific one-liners and biting exchanges (see above). She also makes some witty observations about the contemporary New York social scene, and the upmarket pretensions of Brooklyn’s Park Slope community with its moviemaking classes for ten year olds (“We are doing a shot for shot remake of a scene from The Birds”). Elsewhere, the perils of dating are addressed with acuity and appropriate amounts of dissemblance, while Akhavan draws together Shirin’s cultural background, family history and lack of adherence to both to good effect through her performance and those of Duong and Majd. As the star and the writer and the director, Akhavan shows good instincts in her choice of material, and its structure, but it’s her knowing critique of Shirin’s environment and lifestyle that scores most highly. Reconnecting with Shirin in ten years’ time may not be on Akhavan’s agenda, but on this basis, it would definitely be intriguing to see where Life has taken her.

Rating: 8/10 – an enjoyable piece of indie navel-gazing, Appropriate Behavior is smart, funny, occasionally waspish, but always entertaining; Akhavan is a talent to look out for, and based on this evidence alone, could well be a movie maker whose future sees her going from strength to strength.