‘Appropriate Behavior’ Says F*ck Your Coming Out Arc

In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss. This week is Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior.

One of the best indie queer films of the past decade, Appropriate Behavior debuted at Sundance 10 years ago and remains, frankly, unparalleled in its excruciatingly real portrayal of queer post-breakup chaos. Directed by, written by, and starring Desiree Akhavan, she is indeed the film’s north star. Appropriate Behavior was her striking feature length debut as writer-director, and it cemented her particular brand of queer storytelling: one marked by nonlinear narratives, discomfort comedy, and dykes fucking and flailing their ways through life.

Appropriate Behavior begins with a breakup. Shirin (Akhavan) is moving out of girlfriend Maxine’s (Rebecca Henderson) Park Slope apartment. Almost immediately, Shirin tells her deadpan best friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer) she wants her back. She moves in with new weird roommates, takes a job teaching filmmaking to literal kindergarteners in Brooklyn, and tries to stitch back together her life by fucking her way through it. She goes on bad dates, has a bad threesome, Akhavan always letting these moments linger long beyond discomfort. We don’t cut away from Shirin’s awkwardness or blunt outbursts. Akhavan has no problem making us stay close and personal. Shirin holds people at a distance, but Akhavan’s approach to filmmaking is intensely intimate.

Along the way, Appropriate Behavior jumps back to Shirin and Maxine’s relationship leading up to its dissolution. We get the stoop-set meet-cute when they initially bond over, essentially, being haters. But the problem with bonding over cynicism is that cynicism is likely to turn in on each other eventually. Shirin and Maxine fight as compellingly as they fuck, sometimes even fighting about fucking itself. The whole film a masterclass on structure, nonlinearity, and airtight editing. Scenes move fluidly between Shirin’s present and vignettes of her past, often triggered subtly by a person, place, or thing that sends Shirin spiraling backward to Maxine. It doesn’t feel like a spiral though. It feels like we’re moving back and forth on one straight line. There are no sound cues that send us backward; there’s no visual or stylistic differentiating between the past and present. These flashbacks do the thing so many flashbacks strive for and yet fall short of: they feel authentically like memories.

It’s clear right away that Shirin has romanticized the relationship, as we all often do. Indeed, Maxine and Shirin’s shared sardonic sense of humor and tendency to loathe things makes for shaky foundation to build a relationship on. But Maxine becomes Shirin’s entry point to queerness, and Shirin becomes Maxine — who’s estranged from her parents — chosen family, and well, there are all sorts of reasons we suddenly find ourselves in super serious, all-encompassing relationships with people we’re not good fits for. Appropriate Behavior‘s sex scenes embody so many different kinds of sex, bad and good and in between. When the lust of new relationship energy wears off, Shirin and Maxine don’t even seem like a great fit sexually, a hilariously odd roleplay situation where Maxine commits a little too seriously to the bit of being Shirin’s tax preparer underlining some of their differences of desire. Akhavan is so good at capturing discomfort without actually reproducing the cynicism of her characters. Yes, there’s cringe, but there’s charm, too.

Many of the thorny themes that would later be sharpened in Akhavan’s brilliant (and forever underrated) limited series The Bisexual are planted here in Appropriate Behavior: casual and persistent biphobia in the lesbian community, the internalized biphobia that fosters, and tensions in intercultural relationships. With that last one, Appropriate Behavior really excels, Shirin pushed and pulled by three different selves: the self her parents want her to be (a good Persian daughter), the self Maxine wants her to be (based on Maxine‘s idea of queer life and community), and the self Shirin actually wants to embody, the self she’s still trying to figure out.

It has what I’d call an anti-coming out arc. It’s a movie that understands well the reality that coming into one’s own queerness extends far beyond coming out. In one of the film’s best fights (though picking a favorite fight from the movie is like picking a favorite sex scene from it, which is to say difficult), Shirin and Maxine go at it about their different familial behaviors. Maxine is, understandably, frustrated by Shirin’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship to her traditional wealthy Iranian immigrant parents. Shirin is, understandably, frustrated by Maxine’s pressures, which in Shirin’s mind dismiss the cultural differences. Maxine calls Shirin’s relationship with her parents codependent, creepy. To her, it is wrong. Shirin calls Maxine’s estrangement from her family an abandonment on Maxine’s part, a choice. To her, it is wrong. They’re both being unreasonable and yet completely comprehensible. It can be so easy to seek points of connection in an early, formative queer relationship, to feel seen and understood by another when perhaps we haven’t experienced that in our intimate relationships before, but by hinging our understandings of our own queerness on another person, we run the risk of ignoring key differences. We project, and we fall into the false narrative often thrust upon us that there’s a one-size-fits-all way to be queer, to come out.

When Shirin tells her parents it’s actually completely normal and platonic for her to live with Maxine in a one-bedroom apartment with only one bed in it (“Also, in the movie Beaches, these two best friends shared a bed, and it was very inexpensive,” Shirin rationalizes in one of my favorite lines from the film), it’s intentionally absurd. Of course they know. Shirin’s mother is merely content with denial. Her brother thinks if she likes men, too, then she can just choose that. Maxine is appalled by what she sees as Shirin living a double life when she accompanies her to a Nowruz party in Jersey. But just like the film resists linearity in its structure, it resists a monolithic approach to its characters, especially Shirin.

Akhavan creates queer character that aren’t just unlikable; they’re unpleasant. They’re not just messy; they’re nasty, self-destructive. When Shirin and Maxine fight while drunk, they accuse each other of cheating, of hitting, and both are alcohol-induced embellishments, but you believe their perception of things, because above all else Akhavan imbues her writing, filmmaking, and performances with emotional truth, even among the quippy jokes. This is a simple story but a deceptively complex film. It feels very much like just one zoomed-in snapshot of a queer person’s life rather than a sweeping journey, and that intimacy is ultimately more revelatory than a grander arc might be. As far as breakup films go, it’s one of the best, reminding at times of a 21st century Brooklyn version of Sarah Schulman’s novel After Delores. And ten years later, it still stands out as an indie queer gem.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 844 articles for us.

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