Generation Why? by Craig Schroeder
As a millennial or Gen-Y’er or Generation Next’er (if we’re ever to be taken seriously, we need to settle on an adequate moniker) I’m often annoyed at the cultural expediency to point out the shortcomings of my generation. Millennials have already begun to make their mark on society (if you need an example, just look at any application on your cell phone) but are often characterized as apathetic, ironically detached and plagued by selfishness. And we’re in danger of becoming defined by our worst traits. HBO’s Girls (which has become the reference point for anything dealing with millennial melancholy and narcissism, but for good reason) is able to take the unflattering traits of millennials, dissect and exploit them, and in turn becomes our generation’s strongest and most poignant piece of satire, while navigating through tread-upon territory of love, lust and big-city life. Appropriate Behavior, the debut film from writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan, treads similar water but with a more unique cultural perspective. But the film lacks the savvy and intelligence that’s made Girls (Akhavan is set to appear in the show’s fourth season) a successful representation of a budding generation.
Appropriate Behavior is the semi-autobiographical story of a first-generation American – the daughter of Iranian parents – living in New York. Shirin (Akhavan) is an aimless woman in her twenties learning to accept her evolving sexuality. Having outwardly identified as a straight woman for most of her life, Shirin is coming to terms with her identity as a bisexual, just as her first serious relationship with a woman comes to a messy end. Structurally and thematically similar to Noah Baumbach’s astounding Frances Ha, Appropriate Behavior is a languid, meditative study in self-discovery and independence. But unlike Frances Ha, Appropriate Behavior is a deeply annoying movie, in which both the characters and the creators are seemingly unaware of the parody they become.
Shirin is a narcissist, and that’s okay. The best characters are. But she’s not dynamic. She’s a flawed character, who over the course of the film remains flawed in the exact same ways. Shirin is moving through the world, and the film, without an arc. The closest the character comes to catharsis or change is in the film’s best scene, a heart-breaking glimpse into the uphill battle that is Shirin’s coming out to her fundamental mother (Anh Duong). But because Shirin is such a stagnant character, the structural flaws of the movie are glaring. The action of the film takes place in the days, weeks and months following Shirin’s break-up from her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The film’s framing device allows flashbacks to show the audience the beginning, middle, and end of their relationship. But the very nature of a flashback is to provide context to a changed character. But Shirin is the same person throughout, never growing or evolving. And because Shirin is a flaccid character, the flashbacks become muddied, incoherent, and meaningless.
Most of Appropriate Behavior’s problems stem from a bloated screenplay that ruminates in dead ends, abandons story beats, and simply lacks forward momentum. Compelling story arcs – including an awkward threesome with a straight couple and a vaguely flirtatious beat involving comedian Scott Adsit – are presented and forgotten, causing the already short film to veer wildly off course. There are a few laughs, but Ahkavan isn’t often in on the joke. Comedic moments are happened upon or can be credited to great line readings (the performances are unilaterally good). But the biggest laughs are unintended, stemming from cringe-worthy, self-important dialogue; the line “my art defies labels” is said and isn’t meant as a joke. By trimming the fat, Ahkavan could have created a leaner, more cohesive film. Or at the very least avoided the death knell of all comedy films: the unintended laugh.
And it’s a shame that Appropriate Behavior is so fundamentally flawed. At the film’s core is an earnest look at the fluidity of sexuality and relationships. It’s a film that is aggressively and unapologetically progressive, and sometimes stumbles into profundity. But the film lacks tonal confidence, often unsuccessfully weaving between strained comedy and drama, without giving the necessary weight to either.