“I’m gonna go put Bonnet out”
For a woman like Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) who after a few too many drinks will candidly admit to a wild college life in her twenties, a sexual awakening wasn’t supposed to be something she had yet to experience. She’d done it all already; that’s what that decade of her life was for. Now is the time to be a wife, a mother, and an adult with responsibilities who understands the consequences of her actions. But what if that isn’t working? What if living the perfect California suburban life with the white picket fence, successful husband, and five-year old son leaves her cold? What if husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) being consumed by work, little Logan attending school, and an unfulfilled life in isolation staring her in the face each afternoon is quite literally the definition of insanity?
With desires for a career in journalism squashed years before the blogging phenomenon, technological distractions preventing her from connecting with the ones she loves, and a complete ambivalence towards the Stepford wives who are way too involved in their kids lives for her liking, Rachel finds herself treading water. She can barely tell the truth to her therapist Lenore (Jane Lynch) and probably delivers more help listening to the listener than admitting her own insecurities and issues. If she’s already gone six months without sex, what’s another day? Or another? Only when best friend Stephanie (Jessica St. Clair) explains how going to a strip club with her husband has become their source of release to spice things up does Rachel even attempt to get excited at the prospect of something new providing a cure.
It’s the type of film treatment that could make a killing as a raunchy comedy—especially with a talent such as Hahn at the lead—but writer/director Jill Soloway has other ideas. The concept of a bored housewife taking a stripper under her wing with delusions of helping her exit a life she obviously enjoys living isn’t just some punch line in Afternoon Delight. No, this bomb waiting to explode is a cry for help, a desperate last-ditch effort to feel. The allure McKenna (Juno Temple) exudes on a purely physical level does awaken something within Rachel; something she can’t help but pursue for the good of her marriage and overall happiness despite it. She can mentor this “tragic” youth during the day until the school bell rings and McKenna can teach her how to be sexy again.
Rather than have hijinks ensue, however, the injection of McKenna in their lives carries a much darker and more authentic result. Rachel’s fellow mothers believe the girl to be a legitimate nanny with credentials, her husband is forced to tiptoe around the fact his wife brought a sex worker home to live with them, and Stephanie tries to balance Rachel’s changing for the better with the inevitability of things eventually going very, very wrong. Journalistic intrigue at where this stripper has come from turns to a curiosity in what she does now. A desire to take her out of the life becomes stifled by the yearning to experience the adventure of it as the pressures of being a mother while the husbands go off to have fun as boys reaches its crescendo.
The unknown becomes real in a scene featuring Temple, Hahn, and John Kapelos that will drive home just how unprepared Rachel is for its escalation. An innocent massage while sick in bed stimulates her confusion to a level beyond coping and yet still she willingly puts herself in a situation for much more. But this isn’t a Hollywood game of prostitutes with hearts of gold that break down and see the error of their way. McKenna is a young woman fully aware of what she does who’s opening up to someone who doesn’t as a friend. And just as one slip in support from Jeff turns Rachel to extremes, so too does her betrayal of McKenna in a deftly crosscut sequence of girls and boys letting off steam separately until reaching the point of no return.
With Alabama Shakes’ “You Ain’t Alone” pounding in the background, the powder keg erupts emotionally and physically simultaneously until neither Rachel nor Jeff can continue pretending. The situation she brings into their lives with McKenna’s Lolita could never have been controlled and to have it go as far as it did without fallout is a miracle unto itself. Only when the end stares her in the eye can she realize how far gone everything has gotten until there’s nothing left but choosing whether to walk away or pull closer. McKenna’s involvement—Temple has truly embraced her pixie sex gold persona of late—doesn’t just open Rachel up to reintroducing herself to the sexual creature of her past. It also reminds her why she made the choices that led her this far.
Temple’s temptress slowly revealing herself to possibly be treating this new living arrangement as another job of donning a mask for her customers is but one of many great performances at play. Friends of Rachel and Jeff respectively (Michaela Watkins and St. Clair opposite Josh Stamberg and Keegan Michael Key) provide alternate examples of fake and real stability for the central couple to teeter between while Lynch’s Lenore gives Rachel another mirror to understand that she isn’t alone. And while Radnor’s typecast nice guy persona finds the room to bare his soul in a climactic blow-up with Hahn, it’s she who carries the film and her character’s crippling insecurities on her shoulders. No longer the hilarious side role, Soloway gives Hahn an opportunity to star. She in turn proves ready and deserving of the challenge.