It really does give one pause: Why have the past few years seen a flowering of independent comedy-dramas on the theme of women’s early midlife crises? “Hello, I Must Be Going,” “Bachelorette, “The Kids Are All Right,” “Lifeguard,” “Girl Most Likely,” “Celeste and Jesse Forever” — the list goes on and on, some of them well done, all of them welcome. Is this a post-“Girls” phenomenon? More likely, they’re all part of the same phenomenon: Talented female writers, many of them coming up through cable TV, are taking advantage of low-budget digital filmmaking, film festivals, and the streaming/on-demand pipeline to tell their own stories. And guess what? The women are as profoundly confused as the men are.
The latest is “Afternoon Delight,” the nervy, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny directorial debut of writer/show-runner Jill Soloway (”United States of Tara,” “Six Feet Under”). The movie has a number of things going for it. The first is star Kathryn Hahn, who has been doing deft character work in so many movies and TV shows that you probably don’t remember where you’ve seen her. (“Parks and Recreation”? “We’re the Millers”? “Anchorman”? Try all of the above.) The second is Soloway herself, a working mother who knows her turf and whose script skewers the absurdities of married upper-middle-class yuppiedom, LA division, down to its last bag of quinoa.
The third is the concept: that a suburban mom — Hahn’s character, Rachel — might go so far around the bend from frustration and boredom that she’d bring home a stripper as a combination best friend/nanny.
That would be McKenna (Juno Temple), who Rachel first meets while getting a look-how-open-minded-I-am lapdance during a “daring” night out with another couple. In the following days, Rachel finds herself repeatedly driving past the espresso truck where McKenna and the other girls congregate, ultimately befriending her and, when the girl loses her apartment, installing her in the guest room of Rachel’s Silver Lake home. This results in husband Jeff (Josh Radnor), a scruffy, well-intentioned app developer, looking up from his iPhone for the first time in months.
Before this, Rachel’s social circle has shrunk to a group of cause-mongering volunteers who cluster around Jennie (Michaela Watkins), the local Jewish Community Center power mom. “Afternoon Delight” is very, very sharp about subjects Soloway apparently knows well: the complacency of rich LA bohos, the wondering where all the sex went, the distress of 30-something hipsters who suddenly realize they have nowhere to put their irony.
What’s missing is human connection, which the heroine doesn’t get from her self-absorbed psychiatrist (an amusingly bone-dry Jane Lynch) and certainly not from her husband, and which she deludes herself into thinking she can find in McKenna: a realness that has something to do with sexual frankness but mostly to do with living with one’s eyes open (an image returned to time and again in the dialogue).
The catch is that the stripper has the self-knowledge of a young shark. Gratifyingly, “Afternoon Delight” sees McKenna as a three-dimensional (if shallow) human being rather than a collection of social attitudes — at least until the final scenes, when the character abruptly turns into a plot convenience. McKenna likes what she does (which includes turning tricks on the side), and she likes Rachel enough to convince herself she’s not using her, at least for a while.
More daringly — and not altogether successfully — Soloway slowly pulls the rug out from under her heroine and reveals Rachel’s cynicism as self-defeating. “Afternoon Delight” is a curious cat: a movie where the husbands are all stick figures and the incidental characters — one of McKenna’s aging johns (John Kapelos), a Silver Lake mom Rachel refers to as “Kosher Amanda” (Annie Mumolo) — turn out to have more depth and shadings than she or we expect.
The results feel a little life lesson-y but also well-earned and well-observed, and Hahn takes advantage of a rare lead role to locate both the ugliness and beauty in her character. (I wish we’d seen more interaction between Rachel and her toddler son, played by Noah Kaye Bentley, but in this movie, I guess, the kids are all right.) “Afternoon Delight” is good enough to make you hope Soloway gets out of her upscale neighborhood and starts to take a look around.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.