When I was thirteen, my family and I moved from the town I grew up in. I spent years living in the past, desperately longing to be back with those I’d left behind. And of course, when I returned, I didn’t find the homecoming I was expecting. My friends had moved on with their lives. There I was, having remained in stasis; stubbornly wishing to be back in a place that didn’t exist anymore.
Why am I getting all introspecty and blathering on about myself when I’m meant to be reviewing Appropriate Behavior? Because the power of a personal story well told is that the storyteller makes their story connect to your own. Which is exactly what writer/director/lead actor Desiree Akhavan did to me with her film.
Though purporting to be only semi-autobiographical, Appropriate Behavior was written as Akhavan’s Master’s thesis following the end of her first lesbian relationship, and it feels unflinchingly personal.
The story follows Shirin (Akhavan, playing a version of herself), a twentysomething bisexual Iranian living in Brooklyn who stubbornly tries to get back together with her ex girlfriend while grappling with coming out to her traditional Iranian parents. Everything the film reveals about her relationship with ex-girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) suggests they shouldn’t be anywhere near each other, yet Shirin ploughs forward in her pursuit of winning her back.
Although Shirin isn’t presented as particularly likeable in these passages, it was here that I identified with her the most. She forced me to recall my own times of stubbornly living in the past, potentially being very unlikeable myself.
The genius of the film’s structure is that it propels us into flashbacks of key moments in Shirin and Maxine’s relationship. These flashbacks come without any of the traditional warnings generally associated with flashbacks; no weird jet-engine transition sound like in Lost, no sepia tone, no dissolves.
Instead, simple, harsh cuts align us directly with Shirin’s perspective as she recollects the past. And while I found these cuts jarring at first, my experience of longing for the past meant that I came to appreciate how memories often replay in our minds without warning or specific triggers.
Akhavan has a very specific voice that strives for authenticity. Though there are times when she undermines this, like when Shirin gets a job teaching filmmaking to five year olds, and how Maxine never quite feels like a real person, just a villain.
But when the film does feel authentic, it soars. One scene, during Shirin’s half-hearted attempt to forget her ex by getting into as many sexual situations as possible, is one of the most raw and honest scenes I’ve ever watched. It makes Shirin (and the audience) go through a billion emotions in the space of a few minutes.
Appropriate Behavior is a personal film that is strikingly universal. The distinctness of the filmmaker’s voice and the way she tells her story will find connections in the most jaded of hearts. Believe me, I should know.
Other recommendations: If you enjoy Appropriate Behavior, check out The Slope, a web series by Desiree Akhavan and collaborator Ingrid Jungermann.