Appropriate Behavior opens with Shirin, the main character (played by director Desiree Akhavan herself) tossing the remnants of her last relationship into a dumpster. Her latest foray into the world of lesbian romance has fizzled and she’s alone again, completely unsure of herself and her place in the world.
Haphazard attempts at putting her life back together are punctured by flashbacks of happier times. While basic premises of the film might appear simple at first glance, further inspection reveals complex statements on a variety of topics, including the sexuality of the main character, her Iranian ethnicity, and the challenge of bridging the gap between the two.
“Serious” commentary aside, the movie also pokes fun at the limits of a female comedy film, when, for example, Shirin enters a lingerie boutique to buy new panties only to be lectured on self-esteem by the saleswoman. Misanthropy, irony and crude humor abound. Plot elements such as competition between Shirin and her overachieving older brother and Shirin’s new gig teaching film to kids further develop Akhavan’s character, pulling back the curtain on her somewhat guarded personality.
That “fitting in” is a primary theme in Appropriate Behavior may be no surprise given the story of its director and star, Desiree Akhavan. The child of Iranian-American parents, Akhavan was frequently alienated by her classmates early in life. As a bisexual woman, Akhavan is no stranger to living life differently from even many modern social conventions dictate. Audiences will get a keen sense of how being “different” feels upon seeing the Shirin’s experiences adrift between apartments, lovers, and jobs.
Early-life experiences shape our personality and can have long-lasting impacts on how we view the world, and Akhavan’s film deftly proves this point. Once designated the “ugliest girl in school” in a poll set up by her eighth-grade classmates, Akhavan experienced societal dejection firsthand. Later, as a film student, Akhavan realized her bisexuality after ending a long relationship with a man. With the understanding that she was violating the norms of not only society at large but also those of her ethnic community, Akhavan doubtlessly absorbed material that later inspired her work.
Issues involving gender identity and sexual orientation play an important role in Appropriate Behavior, but the filmmaker has stated that she did not set out to explore these topics deliberately. Instead, the movie explores Akhavan’s own experiences, which, although fictionalized, resemble a series of diary entries. The humor and irreverence with which Akhavan delves into feminism and sexuality, despite their ubiquitous presence in the film, allow her capture the central truths of her struggles while endearing herself to viewers.
Akhavan brings a unique and much-needed voice to the independent film scene. While most of us probably missed her Sundance premiere, Appropriate Behavior is now available for those who have DirecTV service as well as for purchase from the iTunes store. And although some critics have compared Akhavan to Lena Dunham, Akhavan has rejected the comparison as dismissive of the potential impact she can make with her own distinct vision. As Akhavan continues to explore a variety of themes in her unique, thought-provoking style, audiences are sure to appreciate her efforts at least as much as they have enjoyed Appropriate Behavior.