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Appropriate Behavior is a film that is simultaneously common and revolutionary. The kinds of plot points it touches on as a comedy / romance (maybe not a romantic comedy, since the comedy mostly springs from the collapse of the romance) are familiar: a young woman, recovering from emotional battle, trying to figure out her place in the world. At the same time, it's also about an Iranian bisexual woman, played by the woman who wrote and directed the movie. It deals with the struggle of coming out from a specific cultural vantage point, examines the qualms and complications of 21st century dating when bisexuality and threesomes are thrown in the mix, and does all of it without ever approaching the material in a way that calls attention to these differences. That's not to say there would be anything wrong with a film that flew its unique perspective like a flag, just that Akhavan is emphasizing the normalcy of such a story using elements the audience is already familiar with.
Akhavan's performance and directorial style go hand-in-hand. The film's comedy has a wry observational feel to it that matches her deadpan delivery of the dialogue. It'd be presumptuous to presume the movie is autobiographical or that Shirin is a heightened version of Akhavan, but the performance certainly feels natural enough that it's hard not to wonder about it. Even more impressive is the amount of vulnerability she brings to the role. Although Akhavan seems quite tall on-screen, her character's reservoir of insecurity makes her seem tiny in her most fragile moments. Shirin's friend Crystal (Halley Feiffer) helps her get a job at a school teaching filmmaking to children, and while her laid-back stoner boss, Ken (familiar character actor Scott Adsit), doesn't seem to mind her questionable ability to wrangle the children, there are scenes in the classroom where it seems like these five-year-olds could just push her over. In another moment, she curls up on her bed in the dark, shrinking away from OKCupid on her laptop and the idea of starting over.
The film's timeline is one of the only stylistic areas where Akhavan breaks from the genre, drifting in and out of two concurrent threads: the post-split present and the relationship itself. There is never any sort of visual or aural device to indicate she's switching timelines; the audience is expected to pick-up on it based on what's happening between Shirin and Maxine in a given scene. At times, this approach can be a bit confusing, but only briefly, and it's hard to imagine the film playing out chronologically. Instead, Akhavan shows us her struggles to explain her family to Maxine, followed by the struggles themselves: bickering with her brother (Arian Moayed), subtle nudges by her father (Hooman Majd) to find a boyfriend, and reassurance (albeit slightly weary) from her mother (Anh Duong). Akhavan also has very strong chemistry with Henderson. In the few moments where we see things going well for them, there's a tenderness to their intimacy that's stronger than some other romantic comedies manage in their entire running time.
Late in the film, Shirin goes to a bar and ends up drinking with a couple (Christopher James Baker and Robyn Rikoon). The three of them end up back at the couple's apartment. It's hard to imagine any other comedy containing a scene like this without trying to defuse it by going really broad and building up to it, or making it salacious and emphasizing the extremity of it. Yet, Akhavan manages to capture the vibe that would set up such an encounter, then deftly goes somewhere else with it that remains rooted in character and stays human, and extricates complex emotional notes from it, mostly without using dialogue. It's indicative of the film as a whole, keeping the challenges that Shirin faces personal instead of objective -- her struggle to come out is not about her parents accepting it but her willingness to reveal it. Appropriate Behavior is an impressive juggling act that finds Akhavan keeping a number of elements in the air successfully, all while hoping it won't seem like a feat at all.
Appropriate Behavior comes in a standard Amaray case with the original theatrical poster artwork. Admittedly, it's hard to summarize the movie in a single image, and it is very much Desiree Akhavan's show, but this image of her face, as seen in a gap between two characters' bodies, is pretty vague. In all honesty, before I saw the film, I thought she was creating a shape with her hands to peer through; the intent of the image would be much clearer if it were pulled back a bit. The rest of the design is very simple: full promo pictures in a line, next to text on white. The single-disc release contains no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and armed with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, Appropriate Behavior looks and sounds just fine. The film was shot on the RED Scarlet, and many films shot on RED cameras tend to have an especially digital look to them, a certain harshness that is unlike film. This film has a softer appearance, which looks more natural and pleasing to the eye. On close inspection, there is a sneaking suspicion that the film is just short of being compressed to the point where artifacts would show, but the details remain just on the side of stable throughout, even in darker scenes where artifacts tend to be the biggest concern. No banding intrudes on the presentation, and colors are nicely saturated. Sound-wise, this is a dialogue-driven movie with very little going on in the surrounds other than the occasional subdued music cue or crowd ambiance, whether that's the school that Shirin teaches at, or the multiple New Year's celebrations she ends up at. No subtitles or captions are provided, unfortunately; the occasional line of dialogue in Persian is translated through "burned-in" captions.
Sadly, nothing but the film's original theatrical trailer is included.
The ways in which Appropriate Behavior is revolutionary will be most important to its target audience, the same kinds of people who the film is about. For everyone else, it will just seem like a modern romantic comedy, and a good one at that. It's only a shame that Kino has not only released a barebones disc (an audio commentary by Akhavan would really boost the value of the disc), but also only chosen to release the film in standard definition. Recommended.
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