Films set in trendy parts of New York, featuring trendy and often unemployed young people are often a cause for concern. There was hope though, based on the premise, that Appropriate Behaviour (2014) would be something a little different and a little more heartfelt than the norm.
Appropriate Behaviour focuses on Shirin, a young woman finding her way in life and struggling to behave appropriately in all sorts of situations. How do you handle a breakup? How do you tell your strict and old school Iranian parents you were in love with another woman? How do you teach a class of kids filmmaking? What is the best way to handle a threesome? On one level you can break the film down to the posing and then humourous answering of questions such as these. But that makes it sound like a disparate sketch comedy, which is definitely is not. It is actually a really coherent, really well written and performed character piece. The formative moment that triggers all of this for Shirin is her breakup with girlfriend Maxine. The film gently goes back and forth to show some of the earlier parts of the relationship. I have been beset by films obsessed with flashbacks recently and it often unnecessarily breaks up the narrative the film is actually trying. Thankfully though, this film is gentler in its approach to this and the flashbacks do not take away from the story being told, but instead enhance the depth of everything that is happening.
What I would call, for lack of better phrasing, hipster focused comedies have gotten a fair bit of traction of late. The most notable of these is Lena Dunham’s Girls, which seems to divide opinion a fair bit. How much of that is actually people railing against Dunham herself rather than the show I am not sure. I’ve not seen all that much of it, but I like what I have seen. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) was a film that got a whole lot of love last year and appeared on a few top 10 lists of the year. I hated it though and it ended up on my bottom 10 list. The main issue that I think crops up in a lot of these films is a sense of humour based overwhelmingly on an unrelenting cynicism about the world. Appropriate Behaviour makes a pleasant change in that the characters fit into this hipster box, but the script of the film has a whole lot of heart and there is an actual warmth to much of what is happening. There is a definite caustic edge to the humour, but that is never allowed to overwhelm the film. It’s afraid to be a little unsubtle either in order to help the audience have a fun time. The sudden ability of Shirin to engage with her film class threatens to be a little twee. But then the result is an utterly hilarious moment, fart jokes and all.
The lead in Appropriate Behaviour (who also wrote and directed the film) is Desiree Akhavan, who I don’t think I have ever seen in anything before. She has a great presence onscreen though in terms of both the comedic and dramatic aspects of the film and makes you believe whatever she is going through. In addition, she conveys a character that is many things – Iranian, unemployed, bisexual, heartbroken – but not totally dominated by any one of these aspects. Everyone is good in the cast though, especially Halley Feiffer as Crystal, Shirin’s best friend. She is such a charming and dryly hilarious character and if anything I could have handled her being onscreen a lot more.
Verdict: A comedy set in the hipster scene that doesn’t infuriate, Appropriate Behaviour will make you feel and laugh. But delightfully, mostly the latter. A really fun and well acted film. Pint of Kilkenny