Just a couple of months ago, I reviewed a film about a woman hitting a mid-life crisis of sorts: Gloria. This isn’t a theme that gets explored as often as it does in men, and while Afternoon Delight tackles that period in a woman’s life as well, there’s a large difference to the way it presents itself. “Not everyone gets to be happy,” one of its characters yells at its protagonist, and it reflects the sad atmosphere that Jill Soloway (writer for shows like Six Feet Under and United States of Tara) so smartly brings to the screen in her feature debut.
We’ve seen Kathryn Hahn nail every comedic role she’s been given over the years, as well as some minor dramatic roles as well, but I’ve never seen her give a performance like this one. In Afternoon Delight, she plays a stay-at-home mother who’s simply hit a stopping point in her happiness. Her sex life is non-existent and she doesn’t get a sense of fulfillment from her marriage or home-life. In an unexpected move, she chooses to move struggling stripper McKenna (Juno Temple) into her home, not only to help raise her child but to potentially find fulfillment in getting her off the streets. Her best friend even jokes about it, calling her “Captain Save-a-Ho.” It’s a sad, desperate move to pull, but when someone’s as trapped in what they consider a bad life, it’s not entirely unreasonable.
Nearly every shot of her face in a moment of distress is agonizing, simply because we see the way she’s barely drifting through a life she’s unhappy with. Her husband brushes his teeth while she sits next to him on the toilet doing her business, she sits in a therapist office looking like a blank slate, she sits at the dinner table with her son on her phone while he plays some electronic device. There’s no communication, no warmth. Until she meets McKenna. In the first scene between Temple and Hahn, there’s an all-too-real intimacy. In practically every film, a stripper giving a lap dance to a client will be made out to solely be for the sexual pleasure of the male receiving, all shown through the perspective of the male gaze. Even though we get shots of Temple’s body moving over Hahn, the way they interact outside of body language is weirdly comforting. The way Hahn tries to excuse her pregnancy scars and Temple simply says, “That’s okay.” It’s McKenna’s job to make the customer happy, but for someone as set in her monotonous ways as Rachel is, just that acceptance of her body is enough to create a mountain of intimacy. That kind of connection with an absolute stranger after feeling neglected for years is one of the most frightening things in this world.
The tired mothers in the movie all joke about whatever might sound amusing at the time, but none of them seem to be as disenchanted with life as Rachel. They all seem perfectly content to be the PTA mothers, organizing all sorts of events, never going to the lengths that Rachel does for happiness. At one point, she allows McKenna to make her up and dress her to the nines simply to go watch her have sex with an older man. In these scenes, Hahn looks at Temple with so much longing. Temple’s own impressive supporting performance allows her to always maintain a cool, collected demeanor, but when Hahn tries to mirror that same status, we watch her character fumble into discomfort as accurately as one would imagine from a rather vanilla, unexperienced woman.
All of her fear and sadness comes to surface in what is arguably one of the most climactic and impressive scenes in the film, in which she goes to a wine-drinking party with her friends. Rachel drinks (too much), she laughs with her friends, and then she begins to laugh without them, as they all stare at her uncomfortably. Out of the absolute blue, she starts revealing too much about her past, talking about open-eyed orgasms, and saying things like, “Has anyone ever wondered what their aborted children would be like?” The more she speaks, the more she laughs, the more the audience (and her friends) wants her to stop talking. It’s agonizing because she’s pouring out these feelings of frustration in a drunken stupor and when she starts crying about her son, and his pictures, and about the fucking iCloud. In that moment, Soloway and Hahn perfectly nail just how sad it is to be Rachel.
Jill Soloway tells us a lot with this movie. “How can I complain?” Rachel says the moment she’s introduced. When women in other countries are experiencing so much tragedy, how dare she, as a modern woman with the luxury of technology and money and running water? What Afternoon Delight shows us is that suffering comes in all shapes and forms, and often enough, we inflict it on ourselves by not taking the time to please and live for ourselves. A little change, a little expression of what’s being bottled up inside, goes a long way towards happiness. And once all that angst is out of the way, and you start doing things for yourself instead of for someone else, life just might hand you the afternoon delight you’d been waiting for all along.
Directed by Jill Soloway; written by Jill Soloway; starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jessica St. Clair, Michaela Watkins, and Jane Lynch; 95 minutes.