Appropriate Behavior, written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, is a raw, almost voyeuristic look into the sexual life of a woman whose indescribable sexual identity is frustrating (to say the least) yet stands as a relief for viewers currently trudging through young adulthood. Akhavan's film can easily be compared to Lena Dunham's HBO series, GIRLS, with its embracement of unapologetic nudity alongside both absurd and arousing sexual and social encounters.
Bold with her partners, but not with her parents, Shirin, played by Akhavan, is a self-proclaimed bi-sexual Iranian Brooklynite in her mid-20s. She deals with the harsh tug-of-war of exploring her sexuality despite expectations to adhere to the traditions of a straight-laced Iranian culture. Her inability to come out to her parents or take her professed sexuality seriously is depicted through a series of flashbacks, showing us the beginning of a promising relationship and walking us through to its end.
The film begins at the end of a tumultuous breakup, showing Shirin packing up and throwing out the last remnants from her existence in her and her ex-girlfriend's apartment. Shirin walks to the dumpster, takes a dangling strap-on out of its cardboard box, contemplates tossing it, then continues to walk confidently down the street with the sex toy hanging from her hand, marking the first of many moments that hark to the film's title.
Shirin meets Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) at a New Year's Eve party, where the two quickly hit it off via witty banter and an undeniable chemistry. As their relationship progresses, the two women quickly learn that they define themselves as gay in completely different ways. Shirin is caught up with the obvious chemistry shared between her and Maxine, but has yet to think very seriously about committing fully to a gay identity.
An uncomfortable scene shows Shirin trying to explain to her parents why she and her "friend" share one bed. Her parents are halfway out her apartment door and remain intentionally oblivious as they try to believe the hurriedly woven lies she spins, an obvious attempt to avoid the inevitable shock and familial controversy involved with admitting she and her "friend" are actually together.
On the other hand, there is no question about Maxine's identity, as she sits frustrated on the coach, unwillingly compliant with the façade her "friend" is trying to pull off. Maxine's set-in-stone sense of self highlights Shirin's innate ability to throw her cares, and Maxine's, into the wind. Maxine begins to poke holes into Shirin's role as her partner, inevitably revealing that this is just a phase.
Shirin's inability to be one thing, to maintain one, obvious identity, leaks into her professional life as she quits her writing job around the same time her relationship comes to a melodramatic close. Her younger brother mocks her harshly for earning a journalism degree only to haphazardly pursue a teaching gig. Scott Adsit plays Shirin's new employer, a joint-smoking hippy father who is the exact opposite of the often-uptight Maxine and Shirin’s traditional parents. He represents another option for Shirin, another way to live, harboring a much less critical and somewhat careless attitude toward life.
Toward the end of the film, we're practically rooting for Shirin to come out to her family, waiting impatiently for her character to make a decision, despite the nagging feeling that even if she does come out, she may change her mind again anyway. We're cringing at the idea that the grief caused by her undetermined sexual orientation might have been in vain, yet we know that the sweetly depicted and complicated relationship between her and Maxine could flourish with a commitment.
Appropriate Behavior makes us question why anyone needs to commit to one identity. Shirin is pulled in several different directions by people who want her to uphold certain roles in their own lives, while Shirin becomes caught between such demands and not knowing what she wants. Shirin's character shows us how such indecisiveness is a source of frustration for family and friends, yet at the same time we can empathize with her sexual fluidity and her want to avoid being viewed as a singular persona.
Shirin lives her life unedited, amongst contrasting characters who seem like stereotypes with a little more depth. Akhavan’s character colors unabashedly outside the lines while everyone around her tries to force her into compliance; the people she upsets only want her using one color from the 64-crayon box while I say yes, use every damn color and screw those lines.
The 2014 QFilm Festival will be held September 12 through Sunday, September 14 at the Art Theatre and LGBTQ Center, both located on 4th Street between Cherry and St. Louis Avenues.