I hate so many things too.
It would be easy to minimize the broken relationship at the heart of Desiree Akhavan‘s debut feature Appropriate Behavior to Shirin’s (Akhavan) inability to come out as bisexual to her traditional Iranian parents. This is obviously a factor after watching her ex-girlfriend’s (Rebecca Henderson‘s Maxine) increasing frustrations via flashbacks because there’s an issue of trust, identity, and freedom being stifled. But what about the trust, identity, and freedom of Shirin—the half of this coupling who knows that telling her family the truth could make matters worse? Romance isn’t binary, so ultimatums only cause additional pain. There are no easy answers towards fixing a philosophical fracturing because one’s own happiness mustn’t be disregarded in order to make peace. Sometimes real, infinite love just isn’t meant to be.
This is what makes Akhavan’s film so honest. While Shirin is motivated to win Maxine back through misguided gestures and bids to make her jealous, her memories of the past show as many warning signs as they do joy. Where the shifting of time initially appears to be reminding her of what she wants, eventually it reveals itself to be a necessary process for saying goodbye. Shirin is raw after the break-up. She’s angry, confused, and wonders what she could have done differently. And since she’s the lead and we’re beholden to her desire for repair, it’s easy to forget Maxine deserves blame too. What could she have done differently? Which of Maxine’s actions are exposed as problematic through hindsight? A minor shift in perception can change everything.
We’re watching that gradual realization with each new sexual conquest and the growing distance between them. As Shirin becomes more independent she’s able to see those things she compromised about herself to make the relationship work. And while she may not have told her parents that she loved this woman, she did love Maxine. She gave her heart completely even if she wasn’t willing to risk cutting it away from her family in the process. That should count for something. That should supply the confidence to stop shouldering the responsibility alone. Maybe Shirin was letting her sexuality define her at the cost of everything else because it’s the one thing that doesn’t change by the end. Rather than be what Maxine needs, she’s finally ready to discover herself.
Akhavan pivots her film from its rom-com tendencies to heart-felt drama in this way with a deft hand. She also never loses her sense of comedy in the process. Shirin is inherently funny with a mix of awkwardness, wit, and originality. She’ll take her shot to ask out a stranger in front of Maxine and stumble her way to making good on the invitation. She’ll rail against her successful brother (Arian Moayed‘s Ali) and let him hit her right back until they both feel bad. And she’ll find herself in strange situations while shopping with best her friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer) or accepting a job she’s wholly unprepared for from stoner Ken (Scott Adsit). Shirin traverses these vignettes of situational humor with uncertainty until even success breeds sorrow.
Those are the best moments too because they always go where the moment and characters take them. When Shirin engages in a threesome with Ted (Christopher James Baker) and Marie (Robyn Rikoon), it isn’t guaranteed to end well. When she meets a cute guy on the internet (James C. Bristow‘s Henry), the escapism she sought won’t necessarily provide the satisfaction she craves. Everything she does to forget Maxine inevitably conjures a memory of her to throw Shirin off-balance—each new glimpse uncovering greater unrest and resentment until rekindling their union becomes more about stability than love. At some point Maxine becomes both a crutch and catalyst to an evolution of identity. And Akhavan refuses to sacrifice that duality for convenience. The pain of the unknown is the point.
There’s a lot of it too. The most effective, knowing laughs arrive from her struggles to cope with the emptiness losing this person that was a part of her existence for so long brings. There’s relevance and resonance to them. Rather than hinge comedy on embarrassment like so much of what Hollywood churns out, Akhavan delivers her humor through the reactions to the mortification. She lets the authenticity of Shirin’s shame and regret land with potency before cracking jokes built for deflection. Appropriate Behavior takes special pains to never laugh at its lead because understanding her and seeing ourselves in her is the goal. She’s funny not because she’s a fool, but because we’ve been there. We’ve been exasperated to the point where smiling becomes our only solace.
We laugh when truth is laid bare. We laugh when Shirin and Maxine engage in a petty war of jealousies stemming from some quest for vindictive catharsis only to feel the emotion of an aftermath that shows both were motivated very differently. You shouldn’t be surprised by how much heartache is present considering the subject matter lets it exist behind every scene, but it will surprise simply because we so rarely receive it in this genre. We’ve been conditioned to think happily ever after means solving problems and returning to how things used to be, forgetting that great things must end so greater things can become possible. Shirin’s place in this world might not change, but who she becomes as a human being renders who she was unrecognizable.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.