New York Plays Itself

Appropriate Behaviour, written, directed by and starring Desiree Akhavan, is the latest film about creative, independent-minded twenty-something women trying to scratch out a living in New York, usually while negotiating complicated relationships with their families, friends and paramours. These films often feature graphic depictions of female sexuality, but by and large the characters’ lives do not revolve around male appreciation; the nuances of female friendships are at least as important. In different ways, Frances Ha, Tiny Furniture and Obvious Child meet this description, but it is undoubtedly Girls which has defined the trend.[1]

The emergence of this micro-genre is itself a good thing, throwing into sharp relief just how few coming-of-age films about young women there were until quite recently. (While the films mentioned are comic and are about romance, they are very different from standard romantic comedies, and light years removed from the likes of Sex and the City, to which Girls was bizarrely compared when it first appeared). In thematic terms they form a female response to a previous battalion of awkward young men hesitantly exploring themselves and their romantic lives (Youth in Revolt, Garden State, (500 Days of) Summer, Adventureland). In terms of tone, they are generally different: less sentimental, more sexually frank, and much more New York. A better reference point might be such films as The Squid and the Whale, Tadpole, Rodger Dodger or Igby Goes Down, each of which features a much younger male protagonist, but each of which is set in, and is very much a product of, the Big Apple.

It’s interesting to consider why Appropriate Behaviour and its sister films share this setting. New York features as a heightened version of a much broader phenomenon: a place where young people from middle-class or even privileged backgrounds look for alternative careers to suburbia or finance, living in insecure and low-income conditions without being what would be traditionally termed poor. Very similar stories could be set in many other cities, but New York helpfully combines cutting-edge trendiness (or at any rate what is perceived as such) with a long tradition of attracting precisely these kinds of people. If this story was set elsewhere, many of the characters would probably be longing to move to Brooklyn.

Appropriate Behaviour belongs if anything too comfortably in this sorority; it cleaves so closely to the tropes laid down by Girls that ‘imagine if Hannah Horvath was an Iranian-American lesbian photographer’ isn’t too bad as a capsule summary.[2] Its other main limitation is its episodic nature and lack of a strong narrative. This isn’t necessarily a problem – some of the episodes, particularly a threesome and a scene in a lingerie shop with an empowering sales assistant, are very funny, showing a flair for short-form comedy which illustrates Akhavan’s background writing an internet sitcom. But while Appropriate Behaviour never loses one’s interest, it doesn’t coalesce into something more than a series of vignettes, vignettes moreover of a world which already feels over-familiar. These limitations together suggest a filmmaker who has mastered detail but who needs to find something more distinctive to say (and perhaps a different medium – maybe a sitcom?) Perhaps the best response to New York Desiree Akhavan could have would be to leave it, at least thematically.    

[1] These films are also for the most part written and directed by women (Noah Baumbach directed Frances Ha, which he co-wrote with Greta Gerwig).
[2] It’s amusing to read that Appropriate Behaviour is an alternative to ‘disgruntled New York hipster comedies’, when that is what it so blatantly, and for the most part successfully, is. Akhavan is well aware of this, and of comparisons with Dunham. Such are the wages of making critically-acclaimed films about young urban bohemians in twenty-first century America.

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