Like Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, Appropriate Behavior is another in the recent run of low-budget films about aimless young women living in New York City who have complicated relationships with parents, awkward romantic fumblings with various hookups and dates, and naturalistic banter with friends. This latest version is the debut feature of writer-director-star Desiree Akhavan, who imbues the now-familiar rhythms of this sort of story with specificity that helps set it apart from the crowd. I wish the film was funnier or more complicated. But as an introduction to a fresh new talent, it’s a strong calling card, visually confident and with a clear voice.
Akhavan plays a bisexual Iranian-American, neither demographic well-represented in films of any kind. Her film plays fair with both identities, allowing their unique challenges and excitements to bring something new to familiar territory. There are scenes in Park Slope gay bars and New Jersey Iranians’ parties alike. Throughout the film, we see her moping after her ex-girlfriend, with flashbacks to happier times, while she drags herself into a bad new job, a crummy new apartment, and some questionable new partners. Meanwhile, she still hasn’t come out to her strict Persian parents, who ask if she’s met the right guy yet and congratulate her older brother on his impending nuptials. In the face of all this, Arkavan loads her character with eye-rolling sarcasm and a flat affect hiding vulnerability and emotional growing pains. The arc of the film is a small journey that takes her from sad and lost, to a little less sad and a little less lost.
We’ve seen the scenes involved in this process many times over, in those other (better) films I mentioned in the first paragraph, and in indie films for the better part of a decade. But Akhavan is a fascinating screen presence elevating the routine more often than not. She’s a tall, striking figure with a low voice (hipster Bacall?), dryly amused, just as likely to appear comfortable and glamorous, as she is self-deprecating and disheveled. Here she’s playing a person who has yet to fully come into her own, much to the consternation of people around her who have it all figured out, or at least act like it. There’s frankness to her confusion that can be a bit monotonous, but in her struggle to find the most appropriate way to reconcile seemingly competing aspects of identity, at least it’s honest.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, she’d be pigeonholed as the funny best friend in Hollywood romantic comedies, too smart and interesting to take center stage from the lead ingénue, quick enough to steal a few scenes anyway. But in a film of her own making she can be the focus, and it’s worth the look. She’s a character with a combination of traits unlike any you’ll likely see, a mix of sexual and cultural contexts that’s interesting to watch navigated. Even if some of the plotting is overfamiliar, the person involved isn’t. This is a promising debut.