More Annie Hall than Girls, Appropriate Behaviour pulses with emotion

Writer and director Desiree Akhavan has created an authentic, relatable story – with a heroine we hope will triumph.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Appropriate Behaviour
dir Desiree Akhavan

The romcom is constantly undergoing makeovers and having nips and tucks here and there but it remains in essence unchanged: person meets person meets obstacle. Selling a film is a different matter. The radically new can be offputting but straightforward facsimiles don’t look all that enticing either. So you can understand why the new comedy Appropriate Behaviour is being sold with the help of mentions on the poster for Lena Dunham (and her HBO series Girls) or Frances Ha. Dunham has provided an approving quote for publicity purposes but the movie doesn’t have much in common with Girls apart from its setting (New York City), its vague subject matter (relationships) and the fact that its star, Desiree Akhavan, is also the writer and director.

The trailer for Appropriate Behaviour.

But no distributor would get rich shunning comforting and persuasive comparisons to other popular works, so let’s cut Peccadillo Pictures some slack. What the company has on its hands is an interesting, likeable, witty movie. Whatever it takes to get it out there is justified. It’s just a shame that female-oriented pictures seem to fall foul more readily of this sort of pigeonholing. (If you liked another movie or TV series about a sexually uninhibited woman, you’re sure to love this one!)

Perhaps it’s merely that so few movies, especially comedies, are made with female leads that the only option is to invoke the last good one that everyone went to see. In its interest in the part ethnicity plays in the romantic life of a young woman in America, Appropriate Behaviour would have been likened to My Big Fat Greek Wedding if it had been made ten years ago. Twenty years back, its gay theme might have provoked a mention of Go Fish. The film it most reminded me of was Annie Hall, the romcom Holy Grail, but this might not be a relevant touchstone for young-ish audiences, any more than a movie made in the 1930s would have been used to market Annie Hall to cinemagoers in 1977.

Akhavan plays Shirin, a young bisexual Persian woman reflecting on her recent break-up from her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). It began so well, on the stoop outside a New Year’s Eve party, where Shirin outed herself as a “boner-killer” among the men she’d slept with, then told Maxine: “I like girls like you. You know—manly but also a little bit like a lady.”

There was some light turbulence, as there is in any relationship. Shirin had not yet come out to her family. (“Am I coming as your date?” asks Maxine when she is invited to a family do. “No, you’re coming as my white friend!” Shirin shoots back.) And the competing cultural highlights of life in Brooklyn pose problems for the sweethearts. Who gets first dibs, for example, when they both want to attend the discussion group about anti-LGBT bias in the legal system?

Desiree Akhavan and Rebecca Henderson in Appropriate Behaviour. Photo: Peccadillo Pictures

Wherever Akhavan turns, she can’t help but skewer or satirise something, whether it’s the superficial banter at a Persian wedding or the competitive horror of bumping into your ex when you’re both out on the arm of your latest squeeze. She’s a whiz at writing characters whose life seems to extend beyond their brief screentime, from the primary school teacher who is using storyboards from The Birds while Shirin is leading her own class through the rudiments of stop-motion, or the underwear sales assistant whose advice shades into therapy.

The supporting cast features the eternally dishevelled Scott Adsit (30 Rock) as a cheerful junkie dad and Halley Feiffer, who has the manner of a distracted Tinkerbell, as Shirin’s best friend. The situations may verge on the zany (one couple brings Shirin home with them to enjoy their latex fetish) but the emotions pulsing through the movie are authentic and relatable. Shirin clatters clumsily through the simplest situations but she somehow never loses her dignity. We want her to triumph. I think that goes double for the indomitable, statuesque actor who plays her.

Appropriate Behaviour is on release

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.