Pretty much everyone is going to go through a bad break-up at some point. Maybe one partner cheated. Maybe one had to move and the other couldn’t follow. Maybe the relationship simply wasn’t meant to be, the partners involved simply clashing on a fundamental level. Whatever the reason, if you date, the break-up is always a possibility – and it’s rarely clean. There have been a lot of great movies made diving into the messy aftermath of a relationship gone wrong, but few do so with as much wit and sensitivity as Appropriate Behavior, the debut film from writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan.
Appropriate Behavior follows Shirin (Akhavan) in the immediate aftermath of a difficult break-up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Shirin, the Brooklyn-based daughter of two well-off Persian immigrants, is still in the closet with her family, doesn’t really have a steady job, and needs a new place to live, fast. As she moves on with her life and slowly pulls herself together, we flash back to her relationship with Max and see why it fell apart – and why it meant so much to her in the first place.
I typically find sex scenes incredibly dull. Not because I dislike them inherently – I am running this site, after all – but because so many filmmakers use them as essentially, filler. “You like titties, right?” leers some strawman producer/director/writer. “Have some. Please. See our movie.” Sex in real life is fundamental. It is passionate and unpredictable and funny and sometimes awkward. Sex on film, on the other hand, is rarely worth more than the erection it gives the person making it. It isn’t honest, and that has nothing to do with how graphic the scene is.
Part of what drew me to Appropriate Behavior were that its sex scenes were flawless. Each one told a story, told us where Shirin was mentally and emotionally. Some were funny, some were sad, some were sweet, but they all had drive. They all had purpose.
For instance, one early-film scene finds Shirin trying to get over Max by having a random fling with a handsome stranger she met online. At first, it seems like Akhavan will play the scene for broad comedy, with one character wanting kinky sex and the other wanting something more vanilla – a joke I’ve seen about a dozen times in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Trainwreck. But a quick edit – one of the best edits I saw last year, to be honest – in the middle of the scene to a different sex scene tells us that Shirin is still thinking about Max and shows us the casual intimacy that she’s trying and failing to recreate. It is a damn near perfect scene, and not the film’s only one.
This is the kind of storytelling I love: Taking something familiar, and making it feel new. Doesn’t matter if it’s a plot we’ve seen a hundred times before, because plot doesn’t really matter. By grounding the sex scenes and break-ups and even editing in Akhavan’s character, a young woman trying to balance modern sexuality with traditional cultural values in a way I don’t often see, it refreshes potentially stale tropes.
The comparisons are obvious. Like Annie Hall, Appropriate Behavior is a sharply observational comedy that performs an autopsy on a relationship that was, realistically, doomed from the start. Like Girls or Tiny Furniture, Appropriate Behavior chronicles the life of an urban underachiever still trying to figure out how to be an adult well into her 20s. But Akhavan has her own voice, and this is a film that neither Lena Dunham nor Woody Allen could have ever made. Appropriate Behavior is absolutely essential for fans of indie romance, understated and insightful and genuinely funny. I really can’t recommend this gem enough.
Appropriate Behavior is available now on DVD or streaming on Amazon Instant Video (free for Prime members). It was written, directed, and starred Desiree Akhavan.