From writer/director Jill Soloway, Afternoon Delight is a comedy drama starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple and Josh Radnor about a married stay at home mother who becomes dissatisfied with her mundane life and, without much thought and in an attempt to regain some social purpose, takes on a young stripper as a nanny with aspirations of creating a better life for her. I knew absolutely nothing about the film before seeing it other than the fact, thanks to the poster, that it had won the award for best direction at the the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. So with more critical acclaim than most films released at this time of the year, I went in with rather high expectations.
Kathryn Hahn stars as Rachel, a restless housewife whose daily routine of school runs, lunch with the other mothers and waiting for her husband to come home is far from how she wanted her life to amount to. With youthful ambitions of one day becoming a war reporter, the audience can see that Rachel has an edge that the rest of her peers do not, and this is realised on screen when she jumps at the idea of visiting a strip club with her husband to try and spice up their stagnant love life. In an unconventional twist, it is not her husband Jeff (Radnor) that Rachel becomes more attached to, but rather McKenna (Temple), the young stripper from whom she receives a lap dance. Rachel, in a state of midlife crisis and confusion, befriends McKenna and offers her the position of au pair to her young son, and the plot progresses in a number of both humorous and sinister ways leading to an overall expose of the lengths some people will go to to shake up the tedious regiments that their lives have become. The film attempts to engage with a number of interesting themes including strained marriage, same sex lust and social prejudice towards those in a community deemed to have an undesirable or unwholesome job. On the whole, Afternoon Delight does a wonderful job of intertwining the more comedic aspects of the narrative with the more dramatic. The dialogue, some of which feels freshly improvised, is very funny throughout and the words exchanged in the seemingly boring settings of school benefits and dinner parties provide a biting commentary on the ‘Los Angeles lifestyle’ of yoga and experimental therapy sessions. Some of the bigger set pieces lean towards an air of discomfort for the audience with the forthrightness of the topics being covered, for example, a rather melancholy and drunken discussion about abortion that the audience should not find at all amusing descends in to one of the funniest sequences in the entire picture, a testament to the fine thematic balance that is achieved by the filmmakers.
A large portion of the film’s enjoyment is brought to the audience by its main cast. Kathryn Hahn is wonderful as protagonist Rachel, perfectly capturing the essence of a middle aged woman whose life has somehow passed her by and is willing to take risks to get it back. It is Hahn’s well tuned comic timing that sets the pace of the film and influences those around her to be equally as switched on. The chemistry between her and Juno Temple as McKenna is akin to that of Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried in Chloe, and Temple’s capacity for impish charm with an undertone of something much more mature and macabre is perfect for the character who the audience don’t know if they can truly trust all the way through the plot. Josh Radnor as ambivalent husband Jeff gives perhaps the weakest performance of the leading trio, though admittedly he is laboured the ‘straight’ role that is tasked with anchoring the narrative in some sort of dramatic reality. The audience are also treated to a scene stealing supporting role from Jane Lynch as Rachel’s over sharing, questionably qualified lesbian therapist Lenore, whose mostly unhelpful sessions with the protagonist usually end with more unanswered questions than settled minds.
Overall, Afternoon Delight is a thoroughly enjoyable drama comedy that does not shy away from some of the more uncomfortable phases a long marriage can be confronted with. It was released with little fanfare in the United Kingdom but its entertaining thematic content and razor sharp humour has produced one of the better cinematic experiences I have had over the last month or so. Some may criticise the clear switch in dramatic tone that the narrative indulges in along the course of the plot, but those willing to take the heavy with the light will be immensely satisfied by the picture. A film that is comfortable in its own skin, does not outstay its welcome and keeps an audience engaged throughout, what more can one ask of a small, Spring time release?