Although there’s no formal connection between writer/director Jill Soloway’s earlier short “Una Hora Por Favora” and her first feature “Afternoon Delight,” whichever distributor winds up releasing the latter would do well by pairing it with the former since there may be no better introduction to either the first feature or the filmmaker. It can be seen here, but to recap: former SNL alum Michaela Watkins plays a woman who answers her mother’s nagging phone calls and her own biological clock by picking up a Mexican day laborer from the streets of Silver Lake, the faux bohemian enclave of Los Angeles, and essentially goes through a marriage with him over the course of a weekend. The short really milks its one central joke well, but is even more effective if you know the neighborhood it’s coming from, an area of L.A. that’s become increasingly gentrified over the years, full of hipsters privy to enough Spanish to believe they can speak it themselves while displacing the natives to build their own “Urban Taco Fabricators.” (No, really, the subtitle for Diablo Taco, a restaurant on that part of Sunset Boulevard now.)
It’s not a necessary component to enjoying “Afternoon Delight,” which operates in the same seriocomic vein as Soloway’s TV work on shows such as “United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under,” but the short is like a consolidation of the same psychic uneasiness that slowly oozes out of watching Silver Lake mom and wife Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) wander aimlessly through life, looking to compensate for what appears to be a very cushy existence. Unlike “Una Hora Por Favora,” racial politics aren’t a part of the equation, but privilege is, with Rachel lamenting to her therapist (Jane Lynch) in the film’s opening moments that while she doesn’t have it as bad as women in Darfur, her marriage is equally depressing to her in this moment. At first, it might seem as though the punchline resides in Rachel’s false equivalency, but it’s revealed soon enough it was meant for effect as her psychiatrist’s strange compulsion to talk about her private life strangles any consideration of her patient’s concerns.
In a place where everything is shared, but nothing is revealed, Rachel’s become alienated to the point where after tucking their young son to sleep, she nudges her husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) into taking her to a strip club where she’s given a lapdance by McKenna (Juno Temple), who turns her on mentally far more than physically – the film is never more seductive than the scene in which the two are introduced is drowned out in the music and the harsh red and blue lights of the club, allowing only their facial expressions to tell the story. Rachel’s intrigued enough to return the next day to the club during off-hours and in the daylight sees a girl far less in control of things than the stripper she saw the night before, one she learns has recently been evicted and turning tricks to pay the bills. In her desire to do something for the greater good and supply her with something that finally feels authentic in her life, Rachel strikes a deal with McKenna, exchanging a rent-free room in her house for a walking version of “50 Shades of Grey” to spice up days in which her lone requirements are picking up her kid from school and finding out what Jeff wants for dinner.
Naturally, this arrangement can’t work out forever otherwise “Afternoon Delight” wouldn’t have much of a third act. But Soloway does a rather remarkable job of dressing up the traditional bored housewife narrative, augmenting a study of the time-old fears of routine and responsibility with post-industrial trauma that hasn’t felt so deeply ingrained since Todd Haynes’ “Safe.” The acidity in the air isn’t only conveyed by Jim Fronha’s cinematography that brings out blues so bright they ultimately feel chilly, but in the hard-edged humor where every joke feels like a front for what any given character really wants to say.
There is, indeed, no actress better suited for such material than Hahn, who’s been the secret weapon of so many filmmakers for so long because of the empathy she can elicit from even the most unbecoming of material, holding her own in Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s frat house and rendering the plainly schematic supporting roles that usually come her way utterly human. Like the other women cast around her as Rachel’s circle of school moms – Watkins, Jessica St. Clair and “Bridesmaids”‘ Annie Mumolo – Hahn would appear to have been cast for her comedic chops first, but it’s her other instincts that win the day, fleshing out what surely could’ve been a loathsome checklist of first-world problems. As her husband, Radnor, who’s made a career of playing characters lost in their own head, also is allowed to add some nice wrinkles on what’s been expected of him.
Ironically, McKenna doesn’t benefit from any such generosity of spirit. While Temple dutifully fills out the role of an underaged temptress as she has in “Killer Joe” or “Dirty Girl” or any number of films she’s been in since 2009, McKenna is less a character than a cause, a distinction that might not matter given the fact that it’s Rachel’s story that’s being told and her habit of compartmentalizing every aspect of her life. Yet when “Afternoon Delight” takes a turn in the final 20 minutes that gives McKenna’s fate the same weight as Rachel’s by flipping back and forth between the two over the course of an evening, the objectification of McKenna is completed in more ways than one and she’s barely given another thought before the credits roll. That the entire two-sided sequence is clumsily handled to portray an evening of heavy drinking, breaking stylistically with the cool remove Soloway establishes over the first two-thirds of the film in favor of a shaky handheld style laden with tight closeups, only adds to the frustration.
Yet “Afternoon Delight” is too sharp and too well-observed to be dismissed for that detour, and frankly, Soloway is too persistent and powerful a voice to be dismissed in general. When Jeff tells Rachel, “Not everyone gets to be happy” to comfort her near the end of the film, it’s strangely reassuring for anyone within earshot, confirming that imperfection is to be embraced in order to carry on and leaving no doubt the women in front of and behind the camera will do so stronger than ever.