Sundance Watch: The Feminist Delights of Afternoon Delight
Attractive couple, adorable child, affluent neighborhood, perfect life—it must be too good to be true. And so begins Afternoon Delight, which centers on the restless interior life of Rachel, a hipster-suburban mother and wife who goes from being a passive link in a chain of interlocking relationships to the one that yanks it violently out of its comfort zone.
The gist: Couple in a rut goes to a strip club for kicks. Wife gets a lapdance. Wife brings stripper home to live with them. Complications ensue.
It could have been the premise for a screwball comedy, with the kind of trailer that includes that needle-scrach sound, but writer/director Jill Soloway—who won the Sundance Dramatic Directing Award last night for the film—plays it straight, revealing her characters without judging them, in all their frustrations and imperfections and quietly clashing worldviews. There is broad comedy to be sure, but the root is in the fundamental drama of self-discovery. And a few climactic sex scenes. And yes, pun intended.
The heart of the film is Rachel, played by Kathryn Hahn (recently on the rise with turns on Parks & Recreation, The Newsroom, and Girls). She's married to a good guy, Jeff (How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor), mother to a toddler, and paralyzed by her own lack of agency and ambition, which she privately confides to her shrink (a nicely understated Jane Lynch). Rachel is part of an extended group of moms loosely tied to their neighborhood community center, which serves as the source of both real cameraderie (Bridesmaids' Jessica St. Clair plays her bestie), and social obligation (Wanderlust's Michaela Watkins plays an uber-organized JCC queen bee, with Bridemaids co-scribe Annie Mumolo as a quietly devout Jew). Elsewhere, the husbands (including Key & Peele's smoking-hot Keegan-Michael Key) are part of Jeff's posse. They surf, play cards and have a garage band. Life is good.
Into that well-defined little world drops McKenna (Juno Temple), a twentysomething stripper who does a little more on the side. And though Rachel aims to "save" her, she may not want to be saved. Cue worlds colliding. Messily.
It's a gender-neutral hook, as far as hooks go. Marriages need spicing up. Romance fades in the face of diapers. Familiarity breeds contempt. Strippers are agents of downfall, redemption, or both. And perfect suburban life has its dark side. Is it different this time, in the hands of a female writer/director? And should that matter?
Yes and yes. Damned straight yes. Sure, a film like this could have been written and directed by a man. But would it then have had a woman at the center, supported by a cast of fleshed-out female characters, all of whom have conversations about things other than men? Would there have been matter-of-fact discussion about abortion, or a matter-of-fact cameo by menstrual blood that turns a taboo on its head? Would there have been as much boob? Okay, there would probably have been as much boob.
The point is, the fact that this was a film written and directed by a woman made all the difference. Filmmaking is about storytelling from a specific perspective. When that perspective is dominated by one type of person—generally white men—then storytelling as a whole suffers. This is definitely a film that men will watch and enjoy (see above re: boobs). But in the evolving subgenre of film where former twentysomething romantic leads suddenly find themselves grappling with a new kind of hipster malaise, it's nice to have a woman's perspective in there, along with Judd Apatow's.
Here is the part where I declare by my bias. First, I know Soloway (as my Facebook feed will attest). But second, I think this film is important—not just because it's smart, lush and provocative, but because in both form and substance, it's a model of feminist filmmaking. And that matters.
"Oh come on," says some naysayer who's outraged that I'd even mention it. "Shouldn't the film be able to stand on its own merits regardless of who made it?" Of course. And the good news is, it does! But that's only because it got made in the first place.
It's no secret that there are way more roadblocks for woman making movies. At Sundance, where Afternoon Delight premiered earlier this week, a comprehensive study called "Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers" also had its debut, finding a ratio between male and female directors of 15.24 to 1. The reasons for this disparity included significantly less access to funding; fewer women as prestige and pay scale increase; and being cockblocked in Hollywood's world of "male-dominated industry networking."
The study also found that films directed by women involve more women across the board—a female director means an average of 21 percent more women working on narrative film and 24 percent more women working on documentaries. This means more roles for women on-camera and off, more opportunities for experience and advancement.
So, bias declared. I liked this film, and I want people to see it. I want women to see it, and maybe have the chance to see themselves in it. I want men to see it too, and not just for the boobs. (And, since fair is fair, I want to see a sequel, but this time with Keegan-Michael Key up on that pole.) And I want to see more movies like this, by more women, with more women. That would be delightful.
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