Every Sundance produces a name or two that descend from the Park City mountain air and become embedded in the indie movie scene. One of those “one to watch” stars of the 2014 iteration of the festival is Desiree Akhavan, an immensely talented young woman who wrote, directed, and stars in Appropriate Behavior, a film that falls into single-girl-in-the-city clichés a few too many times for my tastes, but heralds the arrival of someone who seems likely to do impressive things. Like so many Sundance films, this one is more “promising” than “great,” but it seems likely to connect more completely with viewers who aren’t as exhausted by this subgenre as I am.
Akhavan plays Shirin, an Iranian bisexual teacher with parents who would never understand that she’s not on the track to meet and marry a well-respected man. They probably know that her “roommate” Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) is sharing more than just the rent but they refuse to admit it and she continues to put up the front of just not being able to meet the right guy. As Shirin’s brother is predictably settling down, she has to hide her true personality from those who love her.
The structure of Appropriate Behavior is half-flashback. We open with the end of Shirin’s relationship with Maxine and then see the arc of the union and the emotionally turbulent months after it. As the beats of a relationship – first love, first fight, etc. – are presented, we also see Shirin dealing with the aftermath of lost love. I know it’s a standard structure but I wish that Akhavan had told Shirin’s tale chronologically. By jumping back and forth between her sometimes happy days with Maxine and the confused ones that came after they split, her film never finds a rhythm. The quarter-life crisis of a woman unsure of her identity has more resonance than some films in the genre, but I felt like Akhavan’s film kept her arc at arm’s length because we couldn’t really watch it develop realistically.
Admittedly, this lack of structure in Akhavan’s presentation of Shirin’s life could be intentional and thematic. One interesting aspect of Appropriate Behavior is that I was never quite convinced that Maxine and Shirin should be together at all. This is not the story of a great romance that was meant to be. Maxine is remarkably critical of Shirin, to the point that one wonders if she’s not a stand-in for the judgmental parents who have pushed Shirin into the closet in the first place. She’s kind of mean and unsupportive in many ways, especially when it comes to understanding why Shirin is afraid to come out of the closet. She’s also intellectually mocking of her partner. And when a lingerie store saleswoman points out that Shirin hasn’t been supported enough to believe she should have sexy underwear, it’s both a joke and kind of true. To be honest, Shirin can do better than Maxine, and by revealing slowly over the film, it makes her journey to get past her more urgent for viewers.
While too much of the script of Appropriate Behavior feels forced, this is a star-making turn in terms of performance. Akhavan is charming, beautiful, and always engaging, coming off as awkward sometimes but in ways that seem organic to the character (not unlike Gerwig in Frances Ha). There were times when the dialogue she gave herself didn’t quite ring true to me but I never felt that about the performance overall. She has a natural charisma that should take her far, especially if she teams up with the right filmmakers.
Appropriate Behavior is a love/loss piece; the beats of a relationship and then the recovery when it ends. It’s too awkwardly structured and paced to have the resonance that one hopes for in a film like this one but it does fall neatly into that Sundance category of “promising” more than “great.” Like Shirin, I hope Akhavan learns to be a little less eager to please, embracing her personality and delivering great work. If this is a film about someone finding comfort in her own skin and moving forward from there, Akhavan’s future seems the brightest of all.