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Review: ‘Appropriate Behavior’ introduces a fresh female voice in cinema (Includes first-hand account)

While new faces in cinema are a dime a dozen, a combination of freshness and competence is more difficult to find. But Desiree Akhavan’s feature debut is yet another hands-down success from a first-time female writer/director/actor. She follows in the footsteps of Lake Bell in 2013 (In a World…) and Gillian Robespierre in 2014 (Obvious Child) as a woman to watch behind the camera rather than just rising stars in front of it. Appropriate Behavior is an original narrative exploring the pitfalls of being an insecure, partly closeted, bisexual, Iranian woman in New York.

Shirin (Akhavan) has been juggling several identities in order to fit into the many worlds in which she lives. She tries to be the perfect Persian daughter, which becomes more difficult when her flawless brother announces his plans to wed his parentally-approved Iranian girlfriend. Her family doesn’t know she’s bisexual, which was an issue for her ex-girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) who tried to instill her politically correct lesbian values on Shirin. Even her moviemaking class of five-year-old boys refuse to take an interest. Confronting this multi-layer of failure, Shirin embarks on an omnisexual rebellion while she tries to figure out how to bring it all together.

The film begins shortly after Shirin’s break-up with Maxine, resulting in numerous flashbacks to key moments in their relationship including the night they met and the countless times Maxine tried to “improve” her. It’s clear early on that this was a toxic period for Shirin in which she had to add another person to her list of people to please by not being herself. Eventually the recollections turn sour, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Akhavan is the co-creator and star of the award-winning web series The Slope, which follows a pair of superficial homophobic lesbians in love. Originally titled “Disposable Lovers,” the film is inspired by the 16-episode online comedy. Nevertheless, the current name seems fitting since Shirin is consistently trying to figure out what is the most appropriate thing to say or do at any given moment based on social and cultural distinctions.

Desiree Akhavan stars in  Appropriate Behavior

Desiree Akhavan stars in ‘Appropriate Behavior’
Appropriate Behavior

There are no taboos in this energetic narrative. During an informal job interview, the assessor is fascinated by Shirin’s Iranian heritage and equally disappointed by her unexciting experiences watching Disney movies with her grandmother in Tehran. A threesome becomes awkward when not everyone shares the same level of connection. Shirin’s conversations with her straight best friend are hilariously candid as they discuss the attractiveness of her new roommates and what is a proper amount of time to wait to have sex with a new partner. Akhavan’s script addresses generally uncomfortable situations head-on, producing an inventive story that finds humour in the strangest places.

Director: Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson and Halley Feiffer

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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