Neurotic self-analysis and a growing sense of entitlement have become a staple of the New York comedy scene. From Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) to Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010) the city that never sleeps would appears to be tossing-and-turning over a deep-seated sense of insecurity. Desiree Akhavan (creator of the cult web series The Slope) is the latest voice for these hordes of irreverent twentysomethings with Appropriate Behaviour (2014) an endearingly frank, and bittersweet self-portrait of life as a bi-sexual Iranian-American Brooklynite. “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”
That’s the mantra that Shirin (Akhavan) has decided to adhere to following her recent break-up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Drifting from OK-Cupid pick-ups to awkward, elastane-clad threesomes Shirin spirals into a childlike state of immaturity with each juvenile attempt to win back her former beau forcing her deeper into a pit of debilitating self-reflection. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Shirin’s bisexuality is kept a secret at home, and through a series of flashbacks we discover this to be the apparent cause of her break-up with Maxine, particularly in one scene in which Shirin’s parents visit their new flat under the impression that Shirin and Maxine are just roommates, although her father makes a point of highlighting the apartment only has one bedroom.
Shirin breaks the awkward silence by claiming that the arrangement is “very European”, emphasising the barrier between her family and personal life whilst highlighting the increasing appropriation of cultural stereotypes by Brooklyn’s artistic community in an attempt to appear diverse. This conflict between cultural and sexual identity ultimately becomes the catalyst of the film’s shrewd observation of Brooklyn life, leading to a series of awkwardly droll and fastidiously self-aware attempts to understand the current cultural zeitgeist. Excruciatingly honest New York tales of the trials and tribulation of young souls caught in stasis is nothing new. Yet, the keen insight and instinctive feel for the emotional arithmetic of contemporary life means that whilst Akhavan’s acquainted mode of address is unremarkable, her raw and incredibly earnest approach leaves an indelible mark. Akhavan’s debut vehemently speaks its mind, with Shirin often asserting herself rather than heeding the advice of others. Her judgments are severe, capricious and often miscalculated, yet whilst wholly caught up in a broad surge of emotion there are certain moments where her actions capture the central truths of a generation struggling to conform to a model that tries so very hard to appear individual.
Most importantly, Appropriate Behaviour is funny, and not just sporadically entertaining, the film is a riotous series of mishaps from start to finish, be it the nonchalant disposal of a gift wrapped strap-on to a passive aggressive exchange of one-upmanship on the dance floor of a nightclub. The manner in which Akhavan explores the intricate cracks and crevices of her doomed intercultural relationship is positively bristling with witty one-liners and smart observations. Whilst Shirin’s emotional journey unapologetically tumbles into clichéd middle-class conundrums, and her perfunctory search for meaning in an apathetic world is far from unique, the comical and seductively wry manner in which her lessons are learnt makes for addictive viewing; pulling back the curtain of Brooklyn’s manufactured veneer of bohemian living and forging a refreshing representation of on-screen femininity.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble