Ah, the gently insidious weight of doing what’s expected.
Writer and director Desiree Akhavan convincingly captures the pressure in British film Appropriate Behaviour that many people, but particularly those from migrant families, feel as they struggle to simultaneously fit within both the traditional cultures of their parents and that of their adopted home.
Akhavan, herself an Iranian immigrant to America, plays Shirin, a journalism graduate-turned-film making teacher to hilariously disinterested five year old boys, whose ability to deal with these competing identities is complicated, often by her own hand, by her bisexuality.
Passing off her moodily abrasive Brooklynite girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) as her housemate – her loving but codependently-involved parents, Mehrdad (Hooman Majd) and Nasrin (Anh Duong) find their sharing of the one bed in a cosy, nattily-decorated one bedroom apartment puzzling but don’t overly question it; well no more than usual – Shirin does her best to balance her roles as a dutiful daughter with that of self-perceived but largely sweetly delusional, identity as a hip, happening twenty-something party girl.
Her attempts to meet all the expectations laid upon her, none of which are abrasively or suffocatingly communicated but press down upon her all the same, never quite meet with any real lasting or authentic success, her life largely defined by an amiable awkwardness that permeates all her relationships and interactions, which becomes all the more pronounced when she and Maxine split up, leaving her even more uncertain of who or what she wants to be.
It’s this awkwardness, present in her dialogue, her physical mannerisms and generally approach to life, which powers the wry observational humour of Appropriate Behaviour, a film which makes it clear from the get go that none of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, are as adapt at the business of living life as we would like to think we are.
We imagine the sort of person we would like to be, or in the case of Shirin, often do not want to be – her quietly-expressed, uncomfortable rebelliousness stands in marked contrast to her brother Ali (Arian Moayed) who seems happy to tick all his parents’ boxes with a loudly-announced gusto, almost like he needs people to know how dutiful and compliant he is – and do our best to meet that internal expectation.
But as Shirin discover time and again, an idea of who we should be, of how we would like life and its constituent relationships and moments to play out is one thing; making them a self-sustaining, liveable reality is quite another.
That Shirin often fails to come close to these deeply-internalised markers of success is pleasingly not executed by Akhavan in any sort of clumsy one-note joke kind of way.
None of the characters in the film, least of all Shirin, who forms the self-conscious beating heart of Appropriate Behaviour, are presented as punchlines to obvious, agonisingly-told jokes; rather their lives are presented simply and without much adornment as works in progress, the flawed, gently funny outworkings of people struggling to define themselves as much by what they are not as what they are.
A quietly-pleasing feature of the film is that Shirin’s partial resolution of her struggles to be a loving daughter, a long term romantic partner and successful something-or-other – she seems perpetually uncertain of just what her career should be, only settling on teaching five year olds to be reluctant prop-eating amateur auteurs after a weirdly-truncated job interview with stoned stay-at-home dad ken (Scott Adsit) who’s a joy to watch – don’t come in a way beloved of big, brassy, bow-tying Hollywood blockbusters.
Rather in keeping with the unprepossessing nature of this highly-amusing, eminently-relateable and accessible film, they are presented as small moments of contentment, unremarkable unless, like Shirin herself, you are desperate for some signs of success no matter how lightly-realised, signs that possibly, maybe, who knows really, she might finally be ticking the boxes she wants to tick in ways that make sense to her.
They are shown as a wave from a greatly-missed ex here, a minor triumph of centric filmmaking there or a barely-acknowledged coming out to a brother and mother; but they are there, they matter to Shirin, and their existence is marked as much by their humour as their serious intent.
Shirin is not looking to take over the world or remold it in her image; she’s simply trying to find a place in the one that exists already, one boxed in on every side by expectations over which she has almost no control or ability to meet them, that she can live with, that comes somewhat, indefinably close to what it is she thinks she wants from it.
Quite what she wants from it, Maxine aside, whose presence or lack thereof forms a large part of the narrative, is left deliciously and authentically ill-defined by Akhavan, in a way that resonates with many of us who struggle, regardless of where we come from, with the “appropriate behaviour” expected of us.
There is no strident message in Akhavan’s skilfully-written and directed film but if there were, it might be that none of us are really comfortable in our own skin or with what we think we might want to be or achieve in life, and perhaps the best thing is simply to try and be true to ourselves, rather than what other people might be subtlely or not so subtlely be demanding of us, if we hope to have any peace, happiness or contentment in our few short, amusingly-awkward days on this earth.