Complicated individual character arcs and interpersonal dynamics that avoid the typical movie quick fixes permeate Afternoon Delight, a wonderful first theatrical effort from writer / director Jill Soloway, who previously had spent a lot of time producing TV fare such as Six Feet Under and United States of Tara. Soloway’s bored-housewife-having-a-midlife-crisis drama has a familiar set up but an unconventional path of reckoning for protagonist Kathryn Hahn, long a supporting player, in what could end up being a star-making turn for her if enough people catch her nuanced performance. Throwing a monkey wrench into her crisis is Juno Temple’s McKenna, a hard-lived young prostitute and stripper who masquerades as an innocent waif better than the Thing could. Hahn’s Rachel takes pity on / becomes infatuated with McKenna when she loses her place to stay and invites her to move in with her, husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) and their five-year-old son. By doing so, she sets up a situation that could either become a heartwarming act of kindness or a bomb waiting to explode. Yeah, it’s the second one.
Rachel is a housewife in the tawny L.A. neighborhood of Silverlake, where better-to-do families live, raising her son with Jeff, and being utterly miserable by her perceived life’s failures (the writing career went nowhere) and dreary routine of mommy activities with her circle of friends. Jeff is a successful cell phone app creator who works a lot and their sex life is dying a slow death. Sessions with her therapist, Lenore (Jane Lynch) don’t really help, mainly because Rachel can’t be honest with Lenore – or herself – and Lenore feels the need to overshare her own relationship issues.
A suggestion from her best friend, Stephanie (Jessica St. Clair), finds both of them going to a strip club with their husbands in order to exhume Rachel’s moribund love life. Instead, Rachel gets a lap dance from a McKenna. Equally turned on yet sympathetic to what she thinks must be a rough situation for McKenna, Rachel is drawn back to the strip club during the day to “run-in” to McKenna and strike up a friendship over coffee. And who could blame her? McKenna has a face that screams innocent angel, but eyes that whisper seasoned sex kitten. Jeff isn’t initially on board with the decision to bring her into the house, simply because they know nothing about her, but he follows Rachel’s lead and isn’t around enough to worry about it anyway. Rachel explains away McKenna’s presence to her soccer mom circle that she’s the new nanny. But she and Stephanie soon learn that McKenna is more than a stripper, she’s also a “sex worker” as she likes to call it.
Despite that, for a while, the living situation is mutually beneficial. McKenna enjoys Rachel’s kindness and hospitality, maintains her two-month sobriety and helps out with Rachel’s son; and Rachel continues to get new experiences from McKenna, including a sexy massage scene with Vaporub of all things. There’s also a scene where an ever more confused Rachel accompanies McKenna on one of her gigs with a regular client (hey, it’s a naked John Kapelos!), and watches her work, getting even more confused and uncomfortable. Eventually, the pre-fabbed joke of having a prostitute living in a middle-class, straight-laced community finds its punchline when a drunken night with McKenna, Jeff and his poker buddies ends up, well, with someone sleeping with someone they shouldn’t have.
Meanwhile, Rachel is overindulging herself in wine and regret over a fateful decision she made years ago during a night out with the soccer moms. More than a couple of marriages and friendships are wrecked by the events of that night and Rachel becomes a pariah with her friends and with Jeff. What’s more, the McKenna experiment is also over. It’s then up to Rachel to decide what relationships she wants to try to salvage and if she can get right with herself in the process.
Kathryn Hahn is a bright sun in the solar system of this movie. She gives a multi-layered and virtually fearless portrayal of Rachel, who is going through a lot and can’t find any easy answers to her problems. Hahn lays herself bare, figuratively and literally (she makes Mr. Skin very happy in this movie), and runs the gamut from silly woman with midlife and sex issues, to outright unhappiness. It’s hard for her to even quantify what her issues are let alone deal with them. Likewise, Juno Temple is sweet and affecting as McKenna. She’s like a Venus flytrap of preconceptions: she lures you in with a sweet exterior, then slams the gates shut when you realize there’s more to her than you thought. And then you’re hers. Josh Radnor is also suitably good as Jeff, who is earnest, and also frustrated in the state of his marriage. Supporting portrayals are all roundly good as well.
As good as the core portrayals are, Soloway gets a lot of credit for her realistic script, that employs some familiar dramedy conventions, but sidesteps most of the stereotypical pitfalls and resolutions of them. Rachel ameliorates her midlife crisis by helping a young prostitute with whom she sympathizes. Convention says the young girl enriches her life and she hers. Doesn’t necessary work out that way. Convention says that McKenna pulls Rachel out of her shell and reignites her fire for living by showing her new things she hadn’t considered. Yes…but no. It’s nowhere near that cut and dried. Convention also says that the young prostitute’s presence is going to cause problems via Jeff’s attraction to her and more than likely eventually succumbing to his desires. Can neither confirm nor deny that, but Soloway is aware of the situation and handles it not in the way that’s obvious.
Soloway ends up working Afternoon Delight on the page and behind the camera on a few different levels. It’s funny, it’s evocative, it’s familiar yet nicely original. It’s well-made and well-acted is what it is.
Afternoon Delight opens in New York at the Sunshine Cinema 5 and in L.A. at the Landmark 12 on August 30.
[Rating: 4 Stars]