Appropriate Behavior (2014) Film Review, a movie directed by Desiree Akhavan, and starring Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Scott Adsit, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Aimee Mullins, Christopher James Baker, Robyn Rikoon, and Gracie Beardsley.
Already a victim to the typically myopic Hollywood group-think in which every film that we experience must be easily defined by what came before it, Desiree Akhavan and her film Appropriate Behvaior are drawing numerous comparisons to Lena Dunham and her work on Girls. Although both of the young writers have an eye for showcasing postmodern worlds teeming with millennial entitlement and unexceptionalism, placing each title under one broad categorization is like saying that McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut are all just fast food. Much like the current generation of misanthropic millennials, known for inhabiting the dusty corners of trendy coffee shops, with their lonely faces illuminated by the soft glow of the iPhones that are essentially grafted to their hands, Appropriate Behavior often feels apathetic towards actively engaging with its audience. Viewers patient enough to overlook the film’s callow indifference will catch glimpses of a promising young filmmaker distinguishing herself from Hollywood’s insufferable movie-making cacophony.
Desiree Akhavan plays Shirin, a young and directionless Brooklynite who finds herself in a rut after experiencing a break up with her former lover Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Shirin is a woman that would much rather use her cynical millennial snark to take pot shots at her successful older brother (Arian Moayed) and his adorable fiancé than assess her own stagnant life and find a way to move forward. Co-erced out of a lethargic funk by her chipper companion Crystal (Halley Feiffer), Shirin receives a job offer (for a position in which she is unqualified) from the “concentrationally diffuse” Ken (Scott Adsit) to teach a film studies class to a herd of tumultuous 5-year olds. While reluctantly taking steps into a new phase of her life, Shirin is forced to navigate a series of amorous encounters while slowly coming to terms with accepting that hiding her bi-sexuality from her conservative Iranian parents contributed to her last relationship’s failure. The film alternates back and forth between past and present, showing us how Shirin’s previous choices still loom over her and any prospects that she has for future healthy romances.
Appropriate Behvaior is not a film that grabs the audience by the collar and demands their attention so much as it utters a 90-minute string of positive affirmations in hushed reverent tones. Akhavan plays Shirin with an all too familiar hipster deadpan that seems like she is going out of her way in trying not to endear herself to the audience. When Shirin protest’s her older brother’s success to her mother she comes across more like a petulant brat, justifying her own inert lifestyle than a defiant, young, independent, free-thinking woman. Even though Shirin’s woe is me, privileged Brooklynite malaise felt authentic, Akhavan’s performance lacked the charisma to turn the entitled Shirin into a sympathetic or even engaging screen presence.
The film’s supporting cast all do an admirable job in their given roles, which ultimately breaks down to being the minuscule moons that orbit Shirin’s tiny world. After an amusing introduction to Halley Feiffer’s Crystal early on in the film, the character just drifted in and out of the movie without making any sort of contribution to the plot. Scott Adsit really owned his limited screen time as an oft-flummoxed father who seemed to only step out of his marijuana-induced hazes long enough to take his child back and forth to school. Rebecca Henderson excels in the unenviable role of Maxine. Henderson’s passionate and often irritated portrayal of the character walks a thin line between gaining the audiences understanding for Maxine’s frustration with Shirin without turning her into the film’s villain. Akhavan clearly has a talent for writing memorable characters and it is a testament to her creative abilities that I left the film wanting to see more of and not less of the supporting cast.
Appropriate Behavior raises an interesting question about how much compassion we should afford to someone that is struggling to commit to choices of morality that we clearly see as black and white. In this film, Maxine carries a great deal of resentment towards Shirin for not revealing her bi-sexuality to her traditional, Iranian parents, a commitment that Maxine finds not very difficult for Shirin to make. Coming out as gay often represents a drastic shift in how the world perceives a person and can radically alter the identity that said person has spent a lifetime forging. Even in our progressive times, making the decision to come out as gay to loved ones can be a major struggle amongst the most liberal minded families. At one point in the film, Shirin points out that she comes from a culture that stones people for homosexuality and we are left to wonder if her excuse for not coming out is any more legitimate than any familial sacrifices that Maxine may have faced when coming out to her parents. Shirin’s argument is hindered by the fact that not coming out also fits in with her penchant for not testing the boundaries of her cushy, ambitionless millennial lifestyle. Between the young lovers we have a case of two women stuck playing the same game but by a different set of rules. Appropriate Behavior never tries to tell us what the correct answer is in this situation and patiently allows the audience to sit back and watch the events unfold.
Appropriate Behavior spends its 90-minute run time coasting by at the languid pace of its directionless millennial lead Shirin. Members of the audience ranging from Gen-X onward will immediately relate to Appropriate Behavior’s meandering lead, but the “get off my lawn generation” that preceded them is unlikely to find any intrinsic value in this film and its message. While Akhavan’s feature length debut does not find a way to distinguish itself from the film’s genre, it does comfortably settles in to a consistent and entertaining sweet spot somewhere between mildly interesting and never boring. Even though Appropriate Behavior does not offer the cinematic highs and breakthrough performance that would propel Akhavan to stardom, the film does possess the clearly defined mark of an upcoming auteur that should leave audiences excited to see whatever she does next.
Rating 6.5 /10
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