Afternoon Delight is like a new spin on one of indie cinema’s most cliche’d character tropes: the stripper with a heart of gold. This one is written and directed by a woman, Jill Soloway. Here it’s not a man who comes to the stripper’s aid with delusions of “fixing” her but a married woman, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). Taking her therapist’s advice on spicing up her marriage, Rachel and her husband, Jeff, visit a local strip club but rather than finding a spark with Jeff, she becomes enchanted by one of the strippers, McKenna (Juno Temple). One thing leads to another – the two women meet on more casual circumstances – and feeling sympathy for McKenna, Rachel lets her move in until she can get on her feet. Now, the set-up sounds preposterous but the writing and actors make it work. This is real life. Weirder shit has happened, right? Maybe. But this is also a movie, where weird shit is allowed to happen.
What I liked about Afternoon Delight was how it constantly subverted my expectations. It goes places you might expect, but gets there with characters you wouldn’t expect it from. Rachel is married with a child and McKenna is a stripper who also moonlights as a call girl. At one point in the film Rachel accompanies McKenna to see one of her clients and ends up sat in a hotel room watching McKenna have sex. The build up and pay off to this scene is brilliantly played. It’s all very casual and happens extremely naturally. It’s dark and sleazy, but clumsy and awkward. Rachel doesn’t despair and run away or try and teach McKenna to “do the right thing” because she’s too polite for that. Her fatal flaw is that she sees the best in people. McKenna might be half her age, but she is in control and Rachel envies this about her. Instead she goes along with it and has an experience. She will probably never tell her husband about it because it would likely lead to divorce. She doesn’t really do anything wrong, but she is complicit in a situation a married woman, as society tells us, shouldn’t be involved with. Finally, as the scene winds down, just like Rachel you’ll find yourself asking “how did I get here?”
Hahn and Temple are fantastic in the film. Both actresses are so good it feels like they should have become immediate stars. But not a lot of people saw the film and it polarised those who did. McKenna does eventually set off some explosions in Rachel’s life and probably triggers a few divorces but by the film’s end she remains the same character we met at the start. She doesn’t really experience any life lessons and will probably continue to make the same mistakes. It feels honest that way. Rachel and her husband manage to sort their issues out and there is something of a happy ending. There’s sweetness to go with the sour. The film is called Afternoon Delight after all. Your enjoyment of it will really come down to whether or not you respond to Jill Soloway’s voice. I did and I enjoyed it a lot.