It’s hard enough being a woman, harder still for Shirin (Desiree Akhavan), who’s broke, brokenhearted, career-less, Iranian, bisexual, and closeted to her family. American cinema has been recently enamored with the figure of the direction-less female Brooklynite, a tendency that writer-director Akhavan pushes further toward the solidification of an actual genre with this comedy largely set inside ugly Brooklyn apartments and spoken with the realist dialogue of a mumblecore film. While there are echoes of Frances Ha’s aimless hipsterism and Obvious Child’s unapologetic resistance to normative femininity, Akhavan’s tale of queer post-breakup funk shows more nuance, and racial dimension, than its cinematic cousins.
Shirin’s mourning of her failed relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) takes the shape of whimsical and funny sketches around the figure of the Brooklyn flâneur for whom life is too small a flask for it to fit her existence, but also works as a critique of Persian and queer cultures—likening them, even. Iranian-Americans are depicted as only able to communicate by gossiping and “reading,” whereas cosmopolitan queerness is presented as a bubble of self-important and pseudo-intellectual regurgitation. The ethnic and sexual communities she’s supposed to belong to appear to suffocate Shirin, as their original role of sheltering give way to an orthodoxy that erases the singularity of human subjects. Thankfully, for the audience and for herself, Shirin is able to transform this lack of harmony not into bitterness, but into an opportunity to articulate her own awkwardness. That is, the awkwardness of being an actual person in worlds that always require you to be somebody else.
Appropriate Behavior can make the mistake of arming its own characters with the power of analyzing their circumstances, instead of allowing the audience itself to connect the dots. The key element in a film like this is its ability to forge a credulous sense of spontaneity, which happens more often here toward the end, when we start to believe in this hellish world called Brooklyn, devoid of actual freedom, peopled with white folks who take their West-African dance courses very seriously and scrawny tattooed men who spearhead campaigns on gentrification through “mass Kombucha brewing.” We end up believing Shirin’s predicament not only because the dialogue becomes wittier, more organic as the film moves along, but because of Akhavan’s sheer charisma. Her confidence and no-holds-barred convictions need not be propped up by linguistic vulgarities, as in Obvious Child, nor by the stylistic quirks of Frances Ha, for her very physical presence effortlessly embodies and exudes the film’s most fundamental theme: self-effacement as the impossible prerequisite to any kind of belonging.