Last week, females in the film industry ruled Sundance. Women directed over half of the dramas in the competition, which is not the usual percentage when you’re dealing with an industry typically dominated by men. Jill Soloway scored the best director for a drama prize for her first feature, Afternoon Delight, a movie about a bored, stay-at-home mom, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), on the verge of an adult identity crisis. Hahn gives Rachel this sexy, low femme vibe that I was super into.
Rachel has a busy techie husband, a cute preschooler, a gorgeous home in LA, and a sex life that is currently in a major rut. Things are pretty run-of-the-mill in suburbia until Rachel takes her hubby to a strip-club in hopes of rebooting their hetero bed death. Enter, young erotic dancer McKenna (Juno Temple, who pretty much has the cutest teeth ever, nearly rivaling those of Patricia Arquette). McKenna gives Rachel an intimate lap dance and Rachel is simultaneously disturbed and curious. Rachel has never even been to a strip club, but it seems she is drawn to McKenna, perhaps fascinated by her sexual confidence and autonomy. Soon Rachel is friend-stalking McKenna and, next thing you know, she has invited the suddenly homeless stripper to stay in the former nanny’s room. From here, the two women’s extremely different worlds collide and both good and bad things come of it.
Here’s the thing; the plot of this movie is entertaining, but beyond that Soloway has managed to weave a whole lot of feminist issues, stereotype smashers, and taboo-breaking material into the story. This is a movie that looks at a woman’s sexual exploration in a way that is not glamorized to please the patriarchy. From the get-go we see Rachel nearly nude, and awesomely enough she doesn’t have a stick-thin Hollywood body. She is a real woman, complete with a post-pregnancy belly, and she has real woman sex scenes, in which she is totally sexy. Bam.
There are many other feminist aspects of the movie that I could point out, (women talking about things other than men, women talking openly on the universal experience of abortion, etc.), but I will just mention a few things that particularly resonated with me because they were were positive towards lezzies and sex workers.
Hilarious Jane Lynch plays Rachel’s therapist, Lenore, who constantly brings up how amazing her girlfriend is when she is supposed to be listening to Rachel complain about her disaffection with the roles of motherhood and her disconnect from sex. Later, Rachel is having a conversation with her Other-Suburban-Mommy-Friend and she complains that her therapist is always talking about “her awesome lesbian partner” on her dime. Her friend quips, “I bet they have eyes-open orgasms. Looking into the eyes of your partner while having sex? Ugh. No thanks.”
The funny thing is that Rachel really does want an eyes-open orgasm, along with a deeper connection with her husband, who often doesn’t even look at her even when she is talking (preferring instead his smart phone). Rachel is so disconnected from deep connection, and (for the time being) sex in general, that she could totally learn something from an intimate encounter with another woman. That woman turns out to be McKenna, and although their connection isn’t about sexual attraction to each other, it is a healing relationship that guides Rachel past certain judgments and sexual blocks. In one particularly powerful scene, McKenna performs intimate body and energy work on Rachel, who has trouble relaxing in general, and Rachel is so overcome with emotion that she freaks out.
The fact that in this scene McKenna is shown as not just a sex worker, but also a body healer, breaks major stereotypes of how hookers and strippers are typically depicted in Hollywood films. Sex workers appear often in film as simple eye candy, sexual exploits, or love interests, and they tend to fulfill very specific stereotypes; the helpless, broken woman, the drug addict, that trapped woman waiting to be saved from the business by a Prince Charming, and in many cases the character who is eventually murdered, because we live in society sex workers are considered an acceptable target.
Soloway didn’t go this route at all when writing McKenna. McKenna is several months sober, at one point visits a client in order to help her mom out financially, and is completely confident and unapologetic about who she is, and what she does for a living. She unabashedly tells Rachel and her friend that she is more than just a nude dancer, but a full-service escort, even though she could easily have hidden this fact. (There are several instances in the film in which McKenna or Rachel must explain what the activist, less-stigmatized term “sex worker” means). In a Sundance interview about her character in the film, Juno Temple said, “McKenna doesn’t need rescuing at all, even though Rachel thinks she does. She doesn’t and Rachel needs to sort of look at herself… of course McKenna would go back to what she knows and what she likes doing. She’s proud of what she does. She’s not embarrassed about it. McKenna is actually enjoying what she does and feels like she’s giving something.”
McKenna is not without her flaws. She uses her sexuality in a manipulative manner at the dramatic climax of the film after Rachel judges her pretty harshly, and the two women go their separate ways. But at that point McKenna has already served as catalyst for change to happen in Rachel’s household. She and her husband finally have a real conversation, and Rachel has a refreshed sexual confidence that allows her to get what she wants.
Watch a clip from Afternoon Delight below: