I just saw a Sundance screening of Afternoon Delight, Jill Soloway’s writer-director film debut, and my immediate thought was: No, Judd Apatow, this is 40. Soloway’s heart-aching drama poses repeatedly as a laugh-out-loud comedy, but is really a drama, a dramedy. It doesn’t matter. It’s a movie that will make you think and feel alive.
Afternoon Delight is about so many things, but the opening gambit: wanting to bone the same person you’ve been boning for years is a struggle. At the film’s start, Rachel and her husband Jeff — (Josh Radnor) — haven’t “done it” in six months, largely the product of Rachel’s disappeared sex drive. She’s doesn’t necessarily want sex, but she wants to want it. To hike up her interest in intimacy, the couple goes to a strip club with their two best friends. Once there, Jeff springs for a lap dance for Rachel, and she’s whisked to the champagne room for a one-on-one with McKenna (Juno Temple), a late-teens doll of a stripper that Rachel can’t get out of her head. So, a week later, Rachel circles back, using a roving coffee truck parked outside the strip club (that she supposedly follows on Twitter), as an excuse to bump into McKenna on several occasions. The two take walks in LA’s downtown. They smoke, they trade stories — which smartly exposes the generation and lifestyle gap between the women — and one afternoon, when McKenna’s in a jam, Rachel invites her to stay the night, without checking with her husband, in their lush Silverlake home.
Inviting McKenna to stay is further evidence of Rachel’s attempts to jumpstart her life, sex- or otherwise. Also, it’s the first in a series of irreversible acts that gives the film such a fierce narrative drive. It amps up immediate, common concerns: is McKenna going to fleece them? does Rachel want to protect McKenna or have sex with her? will McKenna end up seducing Jeff with her stripper wiles?
The next afternoon, while Rachel and her best friend sit poolside drinking wine, McKenna nonchalantly exposes that stripping is just a part of her job, and that she makes most of her money as a “sex worker” by sleeping with a small cast of monied clients. Her admission opens up new doubts, a new capacity for volatility, and new avenues for potential deceit. When McKenna admits she lied about her age in the club (she’s 22, but told Rachel she was 19 because clients “love the barely legal thing”), it reminds us that her skill set is highlighted by seduction, likely at all protect-herself costs. Her threat level is raised to yellow. But the genius of the film is that Soloway doesn’t pigeonhole her: McKenna’s complicated. Her motives aren’t obvious. Which reminds us that Rachel’s aren’t either.
Then it’s on to another irreversible act: McKenna invites Rachel to come along to one of her client’s homes, since he likes for people to watch. Rachel is bumbling and nervous when she meets McKenna’s middle-aged client (a perfectly cast John Kapelos), who calmly and unashamedly invites Rachel to into the bedroom as a witness. After Rachel’s very mild fascination wears off, she’s disturbed by what she’s seen — McKenna playfully mounted on her john — and wants to escape as quickly as possible.
The next evening, the bomb goes off. While Rachel and her best friends engage in a wine-fueled girl’s night, and Jeff and his best friends saddle up for a poker-style guy’s night, McKenna breaks her sobriety and invites herself into the poker game. Amidst the unfolding drama of these two sequences, Afternoon Delight’s comedic pyrotechnics take off. Where Apatow’s This Is 40 skews mercilessly adolescent by doling out look-at-your-own-asshole-in-a-mirror hemorrhoid jokes, Soloway’s penned vulgarities — highlighted by Rachel drunkenly demanding that her friends, almost celebratorily, talk about their past abortions — are seriously side-splitting. Because we’ve been there. We’ve had too much to drink, and our inebriated thoughts have leapt from our mouths before we could stall them. And very often, and isn’t this why we drink?, they’re hilarious. But what’s heart-sinking is that while these women hysterically carouse, McKenna’s back home in full-seduce mode. Teasing, undressing, and fulfilling her earlier prophecy that she’ll screw everything up.
And while it feels like a climax, it’s a relief things don’t end there. The film goes on to delve its deepest, as it continues to expose the lure of independence, and the struggles of staying together. The real magic of the movie is that even a seeming upbeat ending isn’t enough to take you away from the ache and sadness of the prior happenings. It’s an old trope: Relationships are hard. We all know that (or echo it to our friends in relationships on the rocks). But Soloway — who has written and produced for Six Feet Under, United States of Tara and How to Make It In America, and proves here that a she’s a fiercely attentive film talent — has made an exhilaratingly honest, potent and playful film that showcases, in all kinds of new and fresh and meaningful ways, why relationships — no matter how hard they are — can be so, so worth it.