Why I love Disposable Lovers by Desiree Akhavan (aka Appropriate Behaviour, 2014)

Written by Shore Scripts reader, Ana Beltschewa

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In Disposable Lovers, the script to Akhavan’s feature film debut Appropriate Behavior, SHIRIN, a bisexual Brooklynite and the daughter of well-off Iranian immigrants, is left distraught and homeless after her girlfriend MAXINE breaks up with her. With the moral support of her friend CRYSTAL she moves into an artsy and rundown Bushwick warehouse apartment, gets a job teaching five-year-olds filmmaking, navigates the millennial dating scene and tries to get Maxine back while attempting to figure out how to come out to her conservative parents.

Film and TV might feel saturated with stories about urban twenty-something hipsters trying to ‘figure out’ their lives (Frances Ha (2012), Obvious Child (2014), Girls (2012 – Present)), but Disposable Lovers stands out from Akhavan’s honesty and originality, channelled through the multi-layered character of Shirin.

Shirin is a woman who unapologetically reverses the male gaze, for example when she eyes ‘Henry like he is a piece of steak’ (p. 41) or when she is proud to hate a lot of things instead of worrying about coming across as bitchy. Even though this is a story about a relationship and dating, it ultimately ends with Shirin in a new job, openly bi to her parents and over her ex-girlfriend, all without the help of a love interest. I love that with all her faults Shirin is in fact a great role model, showing that female characters do not need to be reduced to the ‘nice girlfriend’ in order to be happy and successful.

More interestingly for me, Shirin is the child of immigrants and, being one myself, I appreciate how accurately Akhavan reflects what Shirin’s heritage means for her identity. She does not make it into something mysterious and otherworldly (no, she is not part of the underground hip hop community Ken read about in Vice), instead she has a knack for capturing the little absurdities of immigrant parents, for example the way they may nonchalantly lay a guilt trip on you by reminding you they are ‘going to be dead soon and then what?’ (p. 11). Most of all she shows how Shirin tries to strike a balance between detaching herself from the out-dated beliefs of her home country (‘This isn’t The Islamic Republic of Iran, Mom’ p. 12) while still having the desire to make her parents proud (maybe by being a bit more like her overachieving brother), a conflict I believe is at the heart of every first-generation-child’s experience.

Akhavan’s skill as a writer shines, in my opinion, in that she not only uses Shirin’s Persian background as a character trait but also as a dramatic device. Shirin keeps reminding Maxine that in her home country it is custom to stone gay people to death, hence why she cannot just come out to her parents, which creates the conflict that is the main source of tension between the two.

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In Maxine, Shirin finds a counterpart who calls her out on her ignorance and selfishness, for example when she chooses to pick a huge fight on Maxine’s birthday. I love that their relationship is portrayed with the same brutal honesty that runs through the whole story, showing that neither of them is perfect. There is not much nostalgia and magic in the flashbacks through which we observe the course of their relationship; Maxine and Shirin, it turns out, have never been a great match. But Akhavan still manages to portray their more tender moments with a great sense of authenticity, for example, when Shirin mentions the lack of sweat stains on Maxine’s white shirts. What might be an unusual compliment strikes me as a much more genuine and observant gesture of affection than most romantic movies produce. Using flashbacks to structure the story furthermore intensifies the sense of romantic rollercoaster and keeps the story intriguing.  

Apart from their more personal issues, Shirin does not only struggle to fit in with other Persians; as a bisexual (as opposed to an unambiguous lesbian) she also cannot seem to find her place in the gay community. When she accompanies Maxine to a lesbian bar during pride she is noticeably uncomfortable and more interested in watching the theatrical drag queens than mingling with fellow queer women. At the same time she is offended when Maxine accuses her of just going through a phase and when her colleague Tibet assumes she is straight. But Shirin’s unclear and unconventional position on multiple levels only intensifies the original voice of Akhavan’s work. As Crystal points out fittingly: ‘You’re a Persian, bisexual vagabond with her heart on her sleeve’ (p.8). This vulnerability is what makes Shirin so lovable to me. She is someone who walks down the street sobbing after a failed attempt at a threesome, instead of pretending that she can just brush bad experiences off.

Failure is a reoccurring theme in Disposable Lovers; I love how Akhavan sets up her scenes almost like stand-alone skits in which Shirin is not the triumphant hero but instead does everything wrong, no matter how hard she tries. When she decides to be proactive and find a guy on OkCupid to distract herself and make Maxine jealous, pretty Henry is just as bad at fulfilling her sexual desires as Maxine was in an earlier attempt at role-play. When she goes along with the seemingly fun and freethinking couple Marie and Ted, she finds herself in an awkward position when Ted turns into a jealous boyfriend. Even when there seems to be chemistry between her and Sasha, the NYU law professor she boldly asked out, the highlight of the date remains her spilled drink. Being stuck in a loop of constant disaster is not only something I personally find very relatable, but is a trademark of Generation Y. With more freedom but without the ‘adult milestones’ of previous generations, there is often a sense of confused non-achievement; ‘becoming a certified yoga instructor’ or moving to France and changing your identity are very real possibilities.

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Of course, a world in which the central question is ‘[…] how do people meet, admit they like each other, and then KEEP ON liking each other?’ (p. 23) is a privileged one and Disposable Lovers is unquestionably self-indulgent and melodramatic. ‘Can you tell, just looking at me, that I’m dead inside?’ Shirin asks in all seriousness (p. 5). This is one of the reasons Disposable Lovers fittingly is set in New York City, and I love the way Akhavan weaves the city’s characteristics into the story. When she describes her new apartment, a place her mother calls a refugee camp, I can tell she knows what she is writing about. She also mixes up the familiar brownstones and coffee shops with the very cinematic juxtaposing of the colourful, over-stimulating, kitschy atmosphere of a Brooklyn lesbian bar during pride with the colourful, over-stimulating, kitschy feel of Persian New Year, which Shirin even describes as ‘Liberace’s wet dream’.

On an anthropological level the world of Disposable Lovers is full of 21st century stereotypes such as ‘[…] hipsters who live in Greenpoint and ride scooters like a fucking gang of American Apparel models’ (p. 3) or who ‘[…] spearhead […] a campaign to bridge the gaps of gentrification […] through mass Kombucha brewing’ (p. 82). This satirical, deadpan dialogue that pokes fun at the characters, for example when she jokes about her uncle’s bi-curious tendencies, simply makes me laugh because it does not take itself too seriously; Shirin is not spared either. A lot of the comedic appeal arises from her awkwardness, for example when she launches into a lengthy speech to reveal Layli’s shallowness as a plastic surgeon only to find out she specialises in burn treatment.

Her satire does not want to call out political and social injustices; instead she simply reflects on the way she, and Generation Y more broadly, see the world. Nothing is controversial anymore; spending your spare time watching your friend dress up as a farm animal and touch herself is as acceptable as being a stay at home dad into light drugs. When Crystal is shocked about people (outside of New York City as Shirin clarifies) actually dating before having sex, I can only nod in amused agreement. Through her clever dialogue and sharp observations, Akhavan precisely hits the nerve of our generation, since, of course, what we find funny is closely connected to our core beliefs. As Homer Simpson famously said, ‘it’s funny because it’s true’.

Image Credits:

http://www.sbs.com.au/movies/review/appropriate-behaviour-review

Appropriate Behavior Trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdfcKGKNa04

http://filmmakermagazine.com/92402-out-of-order-desiree-akhavans-appropriate-behavior/#.VzCea1UrJhE