I had a chance this weekend to see Afternoon Delight, which just debuted at Sundance. First-time feature director Jill Soloway, who previously worked on Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara, has written and created a film that is both hilarious and sad, real but still fun, and breaks barriers for women in film. Its realistic portrayal of women's lives and its cast of women characters make it a refreshing change from most female-centric movies.
Kathryn Hahn (who was great in Parks and Recreation) plays Rachel, a suburban housewife in Silver Lake who is bored out of her mind. While some might think she has it all -- husband, kid, beautiful house in the LA suburbs -- she's miserable and lacks the sense of purpose that, in my opinion, a career could have given her. She vaguely mentions dreams of writing, but seems uninspired and unmotivated to work on it. She's married to Jeff (Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother), an app developer who recently sold his Farmville-like app "Happy Farm," which turns him into a workaholic who's rarely home and never looks up when is home, as he constantly taps away at his iPhone and ignores his family. Rachel also shares her frustrations every week with her therapist, a hilarious supporting character played by Jane Lynch.
Realizing her marriage has hit a six-month dry spell, Rachel decides to spice up their sex life by going to a strip club with her husband. She becomes fascinated with a stripper and sex worker named McKenna (Juno Temple), and subsequently befriends McKenna, brings her home to live with her family, and attempts to "save" her. Rachel uses "saving" the stripper as a personal project to fill an empty void in her life, and it's implied she's desperately hoping to learn something from McKenna that might help spice up things in the bedroom.
Rachel's budding friendship with McKenna causes Rachel to examine her own life and begin exploring her sexuality - a bold move by Soloway, given that female sexuality and self-expression is still taboo in film and television. Rachel's character goes through a personal journey of self-discovery through the course of the film, and women who are watching will likely find themselves relating to her troubles. It's refreshing to see an incredibly talented actress like Kathryn Hahn tackle a leading role, after frequently being relegated to supporting characters.
One memorable scene takes place during at a girls' night with friends, where Rachel makes a few dark but funny abortion jokes -- another taboo that this movie breaks. Abortion is still rarely discussed on screen, despite the fact that an estimated 40 percent of American women have had abortions. In a recent interview, Kathryn Hahn told the reporter about filming that scene: "It just seemed so like what women talk about, what moms would talk about and say when you're approaching 40. It didn't seem like it was being scandalous. It was just a bunch of awesome ladies sitting around talking. It didn't feel like it was going to be like, 'Oh, this is gonna be really hot button.' It just felt like women sitting around, talking about their sex lives, the life that they had before children." That is exactly what makes this film so enjoyable: it dares to openly discuss topics women experience and discuss privately, but that are rarely acknowledged in film as many (often male) film executives still find them too risky. These are real women's lives, the highs and the low lows, with no sugarcoating and no pulling punches.
Another bright spot in the film are Rachel's crew of mom friends, who volunteer together at the Jewish Community Center. Played by Jessica St. Clair, Michaela Watkins, and Annie Mumolo, these three are each so quirky and entertaining in their own ways that one can only wish that they had been given more screen time. Michaela Watkins in particular really shines, playing an overly chirpy PTA mom who in the first minutes of the film cracked me up with her peppy Facebook enthusiasm: "Okay, I'm going to post this video right now, and when you get home, make sure you all 'like' it! And don't just like it, make sure to share it too, and tell your friends to like it!"
One of the best scenes in the movie is towards the climax, cutting back and forth between a guys' night with Jeff and a girls' night with Rachel. The film takes a turn away from its previous lightheartedness, but Soloway and her cast dare to go where others won't - perhaps enough to make some audiences uncomfortable. Some early reviews have found this scene controversial and argued that it is too dark. But I'd argue that this scene -- and the whole film itself -- is captivating because it is real, and raw, and emotional. There's something to be said for depicting honest, real life with all its flaws and complexities, rather than a Hollywood-ized fantasy version of life.
Afternoon Delight is sweet, hilarious, and emotional all at the same time. Between McKenna, Rachel, and her friends, the film has a cast full of rich, well-developed female characters. It's refreshing that the film centers around a woman's interior life, her personal struggles and doubts and fears, and her friendships with other women -- without having to retreat to tropes about weddings, babies, or "having it all." This is director Jill Soloway's first feature film, and she knocks it out of the park. I hope that Hollywood will pay attention and a major film studio will buy Afternoon Delight soon, so that every woman will have the opportunity to see it in theaters.