DIR/WRI: Desiree Akhavan • PRO: Cecilia Frugiuele • DOP: Chris Teague • ED: Sara Shaw • MUS: Josephine Wiggs • DES: Miren Marañón • CAST: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer
Desiree Akhavan, who rose to prominence in the US as creator and star of the critically-acclaimed lesbian web series The Slope, debuts her first feature film in the romantic comedy Appropriate Behaviour. Written, directed and starring Akhavan, the film tells the story of bisexual, twenty-something, Persian-American Shirin (Akhavan), who struggles with a medley of conflicting identities and metropolitan angst in contemporary New York. While the theme of twenty-somethings grappling with personal and professional tribulations is a reliable, time-worn narrative and tiresome comparisons have been drawn with the work of Lena Dunham, Akhavan’s debut attempts to offer a unique perspective into young, female bisexual behaviour in New York; her Persian identity demarcating the parameters to which she can frame her sexual identity.
Shirin is the neurotic daughter of exacting Iranian immigrant parents and sister of an overambitious urologist brother, who fails to maintain a steady job or find true love in her unstable personal life. When she meets Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) at a party, she believes she has found the one and they move in together. Forever burdened to being the perfect Persian daughter, Shirin’s efforts to conceal her sexual identity from her parents hinders her commitment to ‘out and proud’ Maxine and the strain of subterfuge and denial leads to their separation, throwing Shirin into complete emotional turmoil.
Following Shirin’s pre-relationship angst and post-relationship trauma and the negotiation of a complicated sexual identity within an inflexible Persian heritage, the narrative has the potential to rescue Appropriate Behaviour from becoming another run-of-the-mill, twenty-something comedy whereby eventual happiness, armed with sardonic wit, is found via a detour of relationship woes, substance abuse and insurmountable career struggles. By subverting conventional romantic narratives and infusing it with the cultural concerns of a Persian bisexual, Appropriate Behaviour should serve as an antidote to the multiple hetero and homosexual rom-coms Hollywood thrives upon, inviting the audience to investigate alternative constructions of otherness.
Underneath the metropolitan malaise and bohemian Brooklyn banter however, lies a regressive and myopic view of bisexuality and friendship. Shallow, promiscuous, one-dimensional characters, headed by the highly self-absorbed and permissive Shirin, merely locate them on the social and sexual fringe, preventing a satisfactory insight or engagement with the socio-cultural concerns that steer and determine their sexual identity. The film’s reductive construction of pansexualilty; characters engaged in an exaggerated cycle of promiscuity, excess and reckless desire, only serve to reinforce the abundance of non-heterosexual stereotypes already littering American comedies.
Shirin and Maxine’s burgeoning romance is ignited by alcohol and sustained by illegal substances. Her post break-up threesome with strangers is a night of excessive debauchery specifically focused on masculine pleasure and her new employer is a dope-smoking, reckless father who appears more intent on cruising through life than taking care of his son, underpinning the disruptive nature of the family in the quest for sexual pleasure and fulfilment. Shirin’s sexuality, once aligned to her family, is highly problematic, their rejection placing her culture at the root of her sexual complexity. But rather than address the association between Persian culture and female sexual behaviour, Shirin blatantly denies it and hedonistically navigates New York’s stylish spaces in an almost narcissistic disavowal of the past. As such, Akhavan fails to use the film as a conduit to explore the dynamics between the cultural past and present in contemporary New York and challenge the patterns of ignorance that evidently persist.
Approaching contentious topics with clarity and tact and attempting to find the correct balance between irony and outright offence within a comedic context can often be a tricky affair. Appropriate Behaviour however, fails to commit to irony, hovers on the offensive and the banal and, marked by cautionary trepidation, does not provoke any serious commentary into the sexual mores of contemporary Persian female behaviour. It is an apprehensive and reductive directorial debut from Akhavan, who eagerly commits to an oversaturation of stereotypes to produce yet another run-of the-mill, twenty-something New York comedy.
Appropriate Behaviour is released 6th March 2015