This summer has felt like a particularly strong one for women in independent film. Greta Gerwig got things started in May with her fantastic performance in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha. Both writer/director Maggie Carey and star Aubrey Plaza put a feminine spin on the mostly male teen sex comedy genre with The To Do List, then Brie Larson knocked it out of the park with her stellar role as a supervisor at a home for at-risk teens in Short Term 12. Now, Kathryn Hahn, who is mostly known for wacky and high-strung supporting roles, makes a wonderful (mostly) dramatic turn in Afternoon Delight, a film written and directed by Jill Soloway about a woman who attempts to bring meaning and direction to her life by letting a stripper/prostitute (played by Juno Temple) move in with her family. Watch my ReThink Review of Afternoon Delight below (transcript following).
Several years ago, there was a mass exodus of creative talent from New York to Los Angeles. Maybe it was 9/11, the lure of TV and movie development, the burgeoning of a great creative community, or enduring the last straw of crummy East Coast weather, but actors, writers, and comedians came to LA in droves. But with most people priced out of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, many of these creative types ended up in Silver Lake, a hilly neighborhood a few miles northwest of downtown LA with a more bohemian, artsy vibe. Now Silver Lake has become sort of a west coast Brooklyn, or a less hippyish little Portland, and has, in my eyes, spawned its own film genre -- the Silver Lake movie, where creative types living in modern houses on narrow streets surrounded by trees attempt to uncover the roots of their often nebulous dissatisfactions. Afternoon Delight fits that description, and it's Kathryn Hahn's breakout performance that will make you feel like you're seeing something truly unique.
Hahn plays Rachel, who lives in one of those stylish Silver Lake homes with her young son and her successful but busy app-developer husband Jeff (played by Josh Radnor). With Rachel's son in school, no job, no passion with her husband, only unfulfilling school-related functions to keep her busy, and with no idea what she wants to do with herself, Rachel finds herself in therapy trying to put her finger on exactly what's gone wrong.
Rachel finds a cause to support in McKenna, a stripper and prostitute (played by Juno Temple). After striking up a friendship with McKenna and seeing that she's in a tough spot, Rachel makes the impulsive decision to let McKenna move into her house, telling friends that she's a new nanny. But what starts as a thinly veiled way for Rachel to feel good about herself by changing a life for the better gets more difficult as Rachel tries to keep McKenna's real profession a secret from the other moms while grappling not only with how much McKenna can be trusted, but also the fact that McKenna seems perfectly happy being a sex worker. And, of course, there's the unwelcome sexual tension McKenna creates with Jeff, as well as his friends.
I'm sure a lot of you shouted "first world!" or "white people!" problems at the idea of a movie about the angst of a woman living in a great house who doesn't have to work, but writer/director Jill Soloway smartly heads you off at the film's opening scene, with Rachel telling her therapist (played by a terrific Jane Lynch) that with her comfortable life, she hardly has the right to have problems, what with Darfur and all.
It's a great moment for a few reasons. The first is that it addresses the guilty liberal sentiment that your problems aren't real unless they're life-threatening. While it's good to have perspective and be grateful with what you have, that doesn't mean you shouldn't feel depressed if your life lacks meaning or joy just because you have clean drinking water. Not only does Rachel feel bad, but she doesn't know why she feels bad, then feels bad for daring to feel bad. Like it or not, that's something people actually feel, and just saying "first world problems" is like saying "Just shut up and be happy, dummy!" which is never helpful. It also helps explain why helping McKenna turn her life around is such an attractive idea for Rachel.
The moment also foreshadows what a smart move it was to cast Hahn, who's mostly known for playing high strung supporting characters, wacky neighbors, and scene stealers. But in Afternoon Delight, which is a lot more dramatic and realistic than its trailer would have you think, Hahn keeps Rachel's nervous energy bottled up, maybe out of guilt or confusion at what's causing it. But it's always close to the surface, keeping you guessing what it will drive Rachel to do next, making it a wonderfully compelling and unpredictable performance. It's a real star turn for Hahn, and a great first feature for Soloway, showing that the hills of Silver Lake have some worthy stories to tell.