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Non-Review Review: Afternoon Delight

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Middle class attitudes towards sex are weird. Middle class attitudes toward middle class attitudes toward sex are particularly weird. Afternoon Delight is a film about the complexities around those attitudes, but it’s written from a point of view very grounded in that middle class perspective. There’s a sense that Afternoon Delight isn’t anywhere near as cutting and subversive as it wants to be, working hard to develop the character of “sex worker” McKenna only to throw it all away for a biting climax. (No pun intended.)

There’s a suffocating heavy-handedness and profundity to Afternoon Delight, a movie that edits a casual afternoon surfing on the beach as if we’ve wandered into a life-and-death scenario. There are wonderful moments of levity and wit in Afternoon Delight, but the film works far too hard to keep them boxed off and contained.


As far as subject matter goes, the sex industry is perhaps a little too morally complicated for a relationship comedy to navigate. Issues surrounding “sex workers” and the monetisation of sex are not to be trifled with  – they certainly can’t be reduced to trite stereotypes. There’s debate that goes on and on about the industry and subculture, and it’s pretty hefty subject matter for a move like Afternoon Delight to tackle head-on.

The film follows a married mother, Rachel, who strikes up an unconventional friendship with a dancer she met at a strip club. After inviting McKenna to stay at her house, Rachel discovers that McKenna is – in her own words – “a sex worker.” There are various other, more loaded terms thrown around over the course of the film, as the people around Rachel and McKenna find themselves brought into the orbit of the twenty-two-year-old.


Juno Temple does a wonderful job bringing McKenna to life, but she receives no favours from the script written by Jill Soloway. There is a point early on in the film where it seems like Afternoon Delight might give McKenna her own agency – that it might develop her as a character beyond a bunch of clichés about dysfunctional family histories and poor life choices. It seems like McKenna might exist as a window into a world very different from that inhabited by Rachel and her family.

Unfortunately, the film ultimately reduces McKenna to little more than a plot device. In her final sequences she is not so much a character as a force of nature, a karmic reckoning unleashed against Rachel for her misguided attempts to fix her own issues by focusing in the wrong place. To be fair, this is understandable. Had the movie leaned too far in the other directions, we’d have the uncomfortable undertones of Rachel “fixing” McKenna by imposing her own lifestyle and values.


Still, that doesn’t quite excuse the decisions made by the script. When the script needs a third act shake-up, it reduces McKenna back to a convenient plot device rather than a fully-formed character. The point is clear. This isn’t a story about McKenna and her choices or her history; this is a story all about Rachel and her own problems. McKenna isn’t a character in her own right, despite a few nods made in the first half of the film. Ultimately, she’s just an object drawn into Rachel’s gravity. Given the problems frequently seen in portrayal of sex workers on film, this feels a little ill-judged.

It’s particularly ill-judged given how serious and heavy-handed Afternoon Delight is in dealing with absolutely everything. Actress Kathryn Hahn is a wonderfully talented comic actress. The scenes in which she’s allowed to be casual and jokey with her on-screen husband, played by Josh Radnor, are charming and endearing. There’s a delightfully snarky and sarcastic conversation about gender roles at a school fair, where it really does seem like these are two people who could conceivably have a long-term relationship.


Unfortunately, these moments are all too rare in the film’s run time, which is a shame. Instead, there are lots of dramatically-edited montages and tense inter-cut sequences lending the movie a decidedly sombre air. A bit more of this lightness of touch might make the movie’s weaknesses a bit easier to gloss over. Reducing McKenna to a one-note force of nature might work better in a more obviously comedic movie, but feels out of place in a film that so clearly wants to be taken seriously.

(To be fair, it is nice that Afternoon Delight doesn’t go out of the way to vilify the male lead. Rachel’s husband, Jeff, is hardly the most defined character in the film, but the script never treats him as an excuse. He may not be excessively attentive or emotionally available, but it would be easy for Afternoon Delight to hang Rachel’s issues on her marriage. Doing so would do both characters a disservice, and it’s to the credit of the film that it avoids such an obvious decision.)


The biggest problem with Afternoon Delight is that it really feels like it has nothing especially interesting to say. The movie’s moral is predictable from the outset – the lesson that Rachel has to learn is obvious as soon as her routine is established. Everything else is window dressing. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that the movie treats it as window dressing, giving us no reason to really care that much about anybody or anything on screen.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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