By Chris Gallagher
Appropriate Behavior (2014), directed by and starring Desiree Akhavan, is a film I watched at the Glasgow Film Theatre last year and enjoyed immensely.
It achieves a perfect balance between the critiquing of modern America and the story of a bisexual Iranian-American woman living in a post 9/11 world. After the showing a Q&A was held with director Desiree Akhavan and she was both charming and passionate about the film and the experiences she had making it.
Akhavan’s first feature tells the story of Shirin. A woman with no direction in her life, she struggles with family expectations, the politics of sexual identity and what it is to be ‘Hip’ in the Hipster filled streets of Brooklyn. We travel with Shirin on a voyage of self-discovery as she questions her role in the modern world and tries to eke out her own place within it. It’s a familiar story but Akhavan brings her own unique approach and point of view.
Appropriate Behavior questions the traditional narrative form much like Annie Hall did in 1977 and like the Woody Allen classic, it begins at the end of main character Shirin’s relationship with her girlfriend. Scenes commence and the audience at times is left to figure out where in the timeline the action is taking place. There are several flashbacks to different time periods that help the narrative to flow.
The director doesn’t take the audience by the hand and explain everything; she leaves a certain level of ambiguity allowing them to make their own mind up. Akhavan gives a new spin on a familiar narrative but she gives a new viewpoint in what is a character driven story. She gives new cultural insight on many different levels, as the main character is a female, lesbian and Iranian……allowing us to see the events from many different perspectives.
A key component of a romantic comedy is the protagonist and their romantic interest reconciling and overcoming the issues that have kept them apart but in Appropriate Behaviour that doesn’t happen. We see Shirin for all her faults and it appears at the end of the film that she has learned nothing of her experience and has not grown from it.
The importance of Shirin’s body is constantly utilized by Akhavan to show how out of place she is in the world. She is gangly, awkward and almost doesn’t fit within her body. She towers over her friend as she utters sharp, witty one-liners and tough judgments on the people around her.
A key scene occurs when she is invited to have a threesome with a couple. She lays outstretched on the couch as the bodies intertwine but she just doesn’t fit in. The continued attempts to spark with the whiter than white couple highlights their difference in more ways than one. Shirin’s animated facial expressions continually tell their own story as she smiles her way through pain, attempting to hide from the fear of difference.
What makes Appropriate Behavior an interesting and different story is how Akhavan tells it. The main character of Shirin is a cynical yet unrelentingly idealist and her world is full of young, hipsters living in a fast paced yet vapid modern America. Shirin’s pig headed idealism and sheer determination not to be changed by the world is very appealing.
The world is harsh but Shirin is just as harsh herself. As her girlfriend tosses her aside and moves on, so does Shirin to others as she tries to survive Brooklyn in 2014. Appropriate Behavior uses intensified continuity to show the world that Shirin belongs to is superficial and unoriginal.
As it’s an independent feature Akhavan embraced the technology around her with handheld cameras, continuity editing and an interesting use of space, as Shirin goes from standing alone in the wilderness of an empty Brooklyn, juxtaposed against the following scene in her cramped apartment.
Appropriate Behavior shows what a film can become if it encapsulates all forms of the comedy film in one. Akhavan’s embracing of technology and building on innovative techniques shows just what filmmakers can produce if they question and push the boundaries of film and genre.