Hilarious Iranian-American bisexual Brooklyn hipster romcom Appropriate Behaviour (2014) is a fierce debut feature and one to remember when year-end list season comes along.
Desiree Akhavan’s film made its festival debut at Sundance in January 2014 before wowing critics and fans at the BFI London Film Festival last October, while glowing reviews and impressed punters have greeted its official release.
Honestly and humorously portraying the breakup of twentysomething Brooklynites Shirin (Akhavan) and Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), Appropriate Behaviour establishes its plot and tone with a remarkable efficiency that belies the fact that this is a first feature. An early sight gag concerning the custody of a present is unexpected and laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s even better to come as the film focuses on Shirin’s efforts to come to terms with the breakup, while flashbacks retell the story of her relationship with Maxine.
Akhavan’s script crackles along with a sharp pace and honesty, and the frequency of great gags is refreshing. Films about New York hipsters, such as Tiny Furniture (2010) or Frances Ha (2012), are often charming and sensitive, but rarely satisfy in terms of out-and-out laughs. Indeed, one of Akhavans’s trump cards is that she seems to be both champion and merciless critic of the hipster lifestyle. Characters in Appropriate Behaviour may live in lofts, work in esoteric visual arts and drink from jam jars, but we are invited to both embrace these traits and find them ridiculous. One can easily imagine Akhavan having a fondness for Nathan Barley, the Charlie Brooker-penned TV series that punctured London hipster pomposity back in 2005.
It’s hard to imagine a contemporary film about the relationship and subsequent breakup of two women matching the devastating intensity of Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013). Appropriate Behaviour instead aims for what seems like a more grounded and recognisable love story arc. The aftermath contains its share of sadness and jealousy, while Shirin and Maxine’s relationship itself is portrayed with care from the tender first kiss to the petty squabbling to the sad, angry denouement. Viewers of all sexualities will recognise the incredible, vertiginous highs and desperate, aching lows of love and its ending. It would comprise a terrific New York LGBT double bill if shown alongside the similarly excellent Love Is Strange (2014), a recent film that focuses on two gay men in a long-term relationship.
Shirin’s Iranian-American identity gives the film another interesting socio-cultural texture. Her reluctance to come out to her parents (who had previously left Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death, to move to the US), is returned to again and again until it becomes a threat to her relationship with Maxine.
There are many other reasons why Appropriate Behaviour is something special: from the terrific running jokes to the awkward threesome scene, right up to the nagging feeling that one could almost be watching a semi-sequel to Ghost World (2001) in which Enid and Rebecca uproot to New York.
This exceptional inaugural effort from Akhavan is an auspicious start to her feature film career, and she’s since appeared in the latest season of Lena Dunham’s Girls. It seems like an apt move given the similarities in material and approach of Dunham’s hit TV series, but it must be hoped that Akhavan will be tempted back to the big screen surely and swiftly.