Film Review – Afternoon Delight
In Afternoon Delight, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a middle-aged stay-at-home mom who is unhappy. She and her husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) have not been intimate for a while, and Rachel feels disconnected from her five-year-old son, although she desperately wants to connect. She spends most of her time with other moms trying to help with school events, though never feels close to them or that involved in the activities. Her shrink, Lenore (Jane Lynch), spends most of the sessions talking about herself. While the film does not quite change the way we look at the issues facing an unhappy suburban mom, it tries harder than most to make them feel real.
Rachel’s situation leads to a suggestion from a friend that she and Jeff should go to a strip club to spice things up. Rachel is given a lap dance by a young stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), and is suddenly compelled to seek the woman out and talk with her—which somehow leads to McKenna moving in. Rachel’s motivation to locate McKenna and bring her into her life is never clear cut and transitions strangely; the time they spend together before the move never feels authentic on either end. But when McKenna arrives, the film becomes more focused.
McKenna is never asked to change who she is, and while she is used officially as a nanny, she doesn’t stray from being a sexual woman who goes with what makes her feel good and makes her money. The reactions to this from Rachel are complex. She is horrified by the sort of life McKenna leads, but is in no position to judge, especially since she never asks McKenna to give up that life. Yet she is also intrigued by the difference McKenna brings to her stale suburban world, even if she doesn’t know what she wants from it. She just knows that she wants something new. An encounter with a young, hot sex worker, as McKenna calls herself, has been a trope used to shake up characters’ dull routines in many stories before. This is still true here, yet the film never glamorizes or makes what McKenna does feel liberating. She is in this life because this is what life brought her to, and she knows how to control it. She even seems to enjoy it, even when certain results are, to some, horrifying. The story is more about Rachel using McKenna to experience a different kind of life in hopes of feeling something than it is about commenting on McKenna’s choices.
We are given details of Rachel’s life, so we know that the reasons for her lack of fulfillment are not easily defined. This gives us a complex and realistic view of a woman in her late thirties/early forties and the difficulty in dealing with life’s problems, but it also makes events unfocused and hard to follow, creating a frustrating viewing experience. Rachel’s decisions appear random, which makes several transitions very messy, even if there are also good moments.
This give-and-take makes the film hard to truly embrace. On one hand, Kathryn Hahn and Josh Radnor do a great job of showing a marriage in trouble while never giving into over the top theatrics. They depict two people really trying, and being right and wrong in different ways. Hahn is especially good at showing her dissatisfaction through her face as she thinks through what she needs and what she wants. Juno Temple also brings some depth to her role; her character knows who she is and is comfortable with that, while still trying to be more. On the other hand, the structure takes away some of this complexity and creates a lack of of relatability, making the journey bumpy. Despite the structural issues along the way, we are given an end result that feels true to the characters. What Rachel learns from McKenna is not what is expected, and it gives us some sense of growth. There isn’t an easy out for all of Rachel’s issues, but the film gives us a sense of where she is now, and an idea of some new direction.
Director and writer Jill Soloway has many ideas and leaves things open-ended. She shows the complexity of human beings. However, these same ideas have a difficult time connecting through the whole of the film, making for a disjointed experience. The journey isn’t all that it could be, but it has the right ending, with a sense of closure that is satisfying without everything wrapped up or made crystal clear.