I went into writer/director Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight expecting a light, sweet, creamy dessert. I mean, Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor; this reads like the cast of a smart, hip, but ultimately kind of insubstantial comedy. When you put a spoonful of chilled whipped cream into your mouth, you don’t expect to bite down on a nut, and yet sometimes that’s how ambrosia is made. Soloway’s film is unexpectedly complicated, but uncommonly rewarding.
Rachel (Hahn) is unhappy. She’s dissatisfied with her marriage to Jeff (Radnor), emotionally distant from their young son, Logan, and out of step with the other mothers at the Silver Lake JCC. I mean, I understand not wanting to follow in the footsteps of alpha-female Jennie (Michaela Watkins), but Rachel is more than a little disengaged.
Rachel is unhappy with her sex life; she and her husband haven’t been intimate in a long time. At the suggestion of her friend, Stephanie (Jessica St. Clair), they try to jumpstart their sex drive by going to a strip club, where Jeff buys Rachel a private dance, which has about the same effect as pouring gasoline on the smoldering coals of their life. Rachel starts trying to find the dancer — McKenna (Temple) — and when she turns out to be between apartments, Rachel offers to take her in.
Sex workers are, by nature, adept at making their clients comfortable while extracting as much as they can, and after being starved for affection for so long, Rachel is ready to do all the work herself. She’s hardly prepared to be too critical of her relationship with McKenna; if she were, she’d recognize that her self-involved therapist (Jane Lynch) is exploiting her in exactly the same way.
McKenna is not just a dancer, but a prostitute, with a back-story that screams all sorts of red alerts. Rachel takes her in under the pretense of helping her out of a life she seems pretty happy with. Rachel offers a job as Logan’s nanny, but never insists that McKenna quit sex work. And McKenna goes along because, hey, free room and board.
It sounds like I’m painting McKenna as some sort of parasite, and that’s not untrue. But that’s also not all she is; she has her own patterns of erratic behavior and bad choices to contend with. She is complex, both manipulative and manipulated. And when her influence on an already unstable situation spins it wildly out of control and she is cast back out, it seems like this isn’t the first time.
McKenna may be a parasite, feeding on these people, but she’s not a monster. Or, if she is, she’s not the only one. Rachel sets out to use McKenna to make herself feel better for having “saved” a poor, disadvantaged girl, but takes no actual responsibility. Every one of Rachel and Jeff’s tony friends is willing to use McKenna in one way or another, until the costs get too steep. Then she’s unceremoniously discarded — again — to find another host and repeat the cycle all over again.
For all their hand-wringing, actually meeting someone like McKenna exposes the hypocrisy of these people, much like the way Paul upset the Kittredges in Six Degrees of Separation, or like a wildfire that burns out the dried, built-up debris that collects over the years, clearing the way for new growth. Maybe, once the fire passes and they get a chance to think, they can start talking openly and honestly, like they should have long ago.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.