After getting drunk with a married couple she met at a bar, Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) falls into a threesome at their place. Events proceed apace: she goes down on the wife while the wife makes out with the husband, and then when the wife goes down on the husband, Shirin and the husband make out tentatively until the wife mounts the husband. As the wife becomes the focus, Shirin finds herself sidelined, knocked out of the moment—a third wheel. Things fall apart, awkwardly, and not long thereafter, Shirin splits. It’s easily one of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever watched in a movie, not due to the sexual content but because it accentuates the essential emptiness and loneliness of life. Personally I’ve never been involved in a threesome, but as a single guy I’ve visited and spent time with married or engaged couples, and often an equivalent ennui sets in in which one becomes very aware of being apart from the other two: you are extra, you are separate, you are alone. You can’t help but feel a bit like an adult child your friends have generously adopted for an afternoon or a few days.
Appropriate Behavior, which Akhavan wrote and directed, is about feeling adrift, unmoored. A bisexual Iranian-American twentysomething, Shirin has issues: a family she hasn’t come out to, the end of a meaningful relationship, a journalism degree but no real career trajectory, the fact that she calls hipster-Hades Brooklyn home. The action cuts between the birth, life, and dissolution of Shirin’s relationship with the butch Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) and the present tense—a trawl of vignettes mopey, darkly hilarious, and sometimes both. Youth is largely portrayed here as a waking horror: invasive salespeople who nonetheless reveal you to yourself; the babysitting gig teaching film to small children with names like Groucho and Kujo; the spacey, stoner boss who’s constantly losing track of his kid and, during the handshake sealing your hire, grins “don’t fuck me over”; the successful, engaged sibling who slags you off in front of your parents; the promiscuous straight bestie who stands by you but is kind of a fool (Halley Feiffer, doing her best with a thankless role).
Akhavan embarks on enough detours into My Big Fat Greek Wedding territory to underline the differences between Shirin and Maxine but not so many as to risk cultural exploitation or farce. Tossed-off zingers constantly surface that take the piss out of the characters’ surroundings: "Jacques and I met at Occupy Chelsea"; "It's like we just stepped into Liberace's wet dream"; "You don't know what a cool Brooklyn loft looks like." Appropriate Behavior manages a weird trick: it is relatable yet profoundly unlikable, sentimental yet prickly, sincerely sweet yet almost self-aware.