With Afternoon Delight (2013), actress Kathryn Hahn and director Jill Soloway emerge from the shadows of male-centric comedy filmmaking. An apparently edgy, neurotic comedy about the awkward truths of contemporary middle-class culture, Soloway sadly lacks the sagacity required to unearth the roots of the existential malaise her film is awkwardly fumbling at. Hahn is suitably cast as Rachel, a silver-tongued stay-at-home mum unable to attain gratification. The banal realities of the school-run, her non-existent career and the shallow lifestyles of her friends have left her feeling empty – her sex life with husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) the nadir of these frustrations.
Rachel attempt to spice up her life with an impromptu visit to a strip club. The juvenile sniggers shared between her group of middle-aged hipster friends soon disperses when Rachel is treated to a private dance with 19-year-old McKenna (Juno Temple). A mixture of curiosity and bourgeois guilt sees Rachel invite McKenna to come and live with her. However what initially seems like an act of benevolence opens a Pandora’s Box of repressed anxieties. Soloway’s Afternoon Delight opens on Rachel giving a straight-to-camera monologue about how her life could be worse. After all, she so delicately declares, she could be “one of those African women who walk 14 miles to get water, only to be raped on the way home.”
Rachel’s actually talking to her therapist but her dark, insensitive oration to the audience reveals far more about the film than it does her. For one scene to so dramatically undermine what proceeds it is unprecedented – a brave move that ultimately backfires. The fact is, Rachel really doesn’t have anything to grumble about and this scene removes any pathos that might otherwise be directed at her situation. Soloway immerses us in a world were men and women conform rigidly to gender stereotypes, families eat frozen soy pizzas and the repugnant fog of entitlement and inflated hubris that shrouds the film isn’t just palpable, it’s positively suffocating. Whilst Afternoon Delight’s portrayal of middle-class culture is troubling in its simplicity, it’s the film’s sexual politics that are far more alarming. Rachel looks to Temple’s coquettish sex worker McKenna for salvation – a predictably unwise move.
Initially, it feels like Soloway is moving towards a critique on the sexualisation of the female body in order for women to achieve agency. Yet, when Rachel is actually exposed to the reality of McKenna’s work she becomes judgemental and moralises her life choices. From here, McKenna is cast away and disregarded. Whilst Rachel’s decision to abandon the girl plays to her character’s conceited nature, Soloway’s decision to similarly pass judgement undermines the film’s attempts to break taboos about female representation, and also fails to dispel the perception that the disenfranchised choose their path rather than being forced into it. Afternoon Delight is an excruciatingly muddled indie that illuminates the need to call a temporary moratorium on films built around ‘First World problems’.