The worst thing about “Afternoon Delight,” Jill Soloway's feature directorial debut, is its title: Does anyone want, or need, to be reminded of the Starland Vocal Band's one-shot 1976 hit?
Once you get past that easily surmountable bump, there is much to recommend Soloway's portrait of social unease among post-millennial yuppies. Our heroine is Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a married, middle-class (or upper middle-class) woman in her 30s, whose life is clouded by an itch she can't locate, let alone scratch — a general sense of boredom or disappointment with her life, with most of the focus on her marriage.
Husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) is no wife-beater; he's a wholly nice guy who's wrapped up in his work and who is no longer responsive to Rachel's amorous advances. His business seems to provide him sufficient satisfaction, but Rachel has no outside work of her own. She hangs out with a group of female friends. The group seems to exist in a bubble imported from the 1950s; they come across as “club ladies,” gossiping while sipping a tasty beverage and spending their energy on charitable community projects.
Then, in comes the disrupting figure — McKenna (Juno Temple), who gives Rachel a lap dance one night when she and Jeff are trying to perk things up by going to a strip club. The experience gets under Rachel's skin to such a degree that she arranges to “bump into” McKenna during the daytime. They become friends, so when McKenna loses her apartment, Rachel invites her to crash at her house. Awkward ups and downs ensue, particularly when Rachel and Jeff learn that McKenna is not just a stripper but also a sex worker, a professional that they refer to in ruder, less flattering ways.
The effect of an outsider on a community or home is nothing new in cinema: The granddaddy of them all is Jean Renoir's 1932 masterpiece, “Boudu Saved from Drowning.”
Like many of its forebears, “Afternoon Delight” at first shows that the escort and the “respectable” family have more in common than they thought. But inevitably the focus moves to where they conflict. Both sides behave well; both behave badly.
Although Hahn gets to convey reactions of greater subtlety and ambivalence, it's Temple's performance that gives the film its spark. You're likeliest to have seen her briefly as Anne Hathaway's sidekick in “The Dark Knight Rises” or in a much beefier role in William Friedkin's “Killer Joe.” The daughter of director Julien Temple, she's been in about 30 films since her 2006 debut in “Notes on a Scandal,” including “Kaboom,” “Atonement,” “Mr. Nobody,” “Greenberg” and “Lovelace.” She's perfect here because of the tension between her sexiness and her childlike, kewpie-doll face. No depravity could completely neutralize her air of innocence.
Perhaps Soloway's biggest accomplishment is to neither indict nor give total absolution to anyone. Like most films with this plot hook, it first takes shots at the bourgeoisie; but by the end, no one is a saint or a devil.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).