It wasn’t planned that way, but “Afternoon Delight,” the first feature film directed and written by author and television veteran Jill Soloway, is opening at a perfect time in the Jewish year. A mordantly funny and deeply felt film about transgression and forgiveness, it is just the thing for the end of Elul and the coming of the Days of Awe.
Soloway is someone who will appreciate the coincidence.
She was raised in Chicago by parents with who bestowed on her a Jewish identity, but passed along “no religion and no spirituality really,” she said in a telephone interview last week from her home in Los Angeles.
“We had a very ‘modern’ life, religion seemed like something old-fashioned,” she recalled. “We did have one year in which we experimented, they sent my sister and I to a Jewish day school. I was in sixth grade. It gave me a window into another life.”
It must have stuck with her because, years later, when she was looking for a nursery school for Isaac, her son, she walked into Temple Israel of Hollywood, looked at “the classrooms and the hallways and the artwork from the students and I just felt I wanted to give my son a piece of that, a way to ground him in the world.”
That was, she said, “my way in,” and after attending Reboot, a Jewish retreat for adults, in 2005, “that kick-started something else,” she added. Since then she has become active in East Side Jews, an organization of mostly artists exploring the idea of Jewish ritual and community in unconventional ways.
The experience of connecting with a Jewish community is central to “Afternoon Delight.” Appropriately, Soloway’s take on that experience is unconventional, too, although one can recognize the influence of Philip Roth and Albert Brooks, among others.
The film centers on Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), an upper-middle-class mom and wife who is seemingly adrift despite the trappings of bohemian success she shares with her husband Jeff (Josh Radnor). She’s fully cognizant of her velvet-lined ennui, telling her shrink (Jane Lynch) in the film’s opening shot that “it’s not like I’m a refugee in Darfur.”
On a lark, she, her husband and another couple go to a strip club, where she meets McKenna (Juno Temple), a stripper. Rachel becomes fascinated by the younger woman and eventually invites her to move into the family’s home as nanny to their 5-year-old son.
Needless to say, this doesn’t work out well. It drags Rachel into a very different world from her friends at the East Side JCC, who are depicted with an incisive Roth-ian wit, but not without affection and, in one unexpected case, genuine compassion.
When things fall apart, Rachel is forced to engage in the self-evaluation and attendant apologies one associates with this time of year. When she seeks reconciliation with Jeff, it is no accident that the moment will pivot on marijuana and Shabbat candle lighting, a very 40-something Jewish mixture.
Echoes of Roth, Brooks and Woody Allen are unmistakable, but Soloway brings something quite different to the film: the point of view of a woman who is actively exploring Judaism as a way of negotiating the world. The focus on Rachel’s inner spiritual struggle, exemplified by her lack of sexual satisfaction in marriage, is stunningly forthright, non-judgmental in the best sense. The film’s ending, a woman in a state of sexual ecstasy, framed in a one-shot that emphasizes her pleasure, is pretty radical for an American film and delightfully frank and unguarded.
Although she made one short film before “Afternoon Delight,” Soloway’s experience in the business had largely been as a writer and show-runner on successful cable TV projects like “Six Feet Under” and “The United States of Tara.” That background didn’t exactly prepare her for the control that directing bestows.
“I didn’t know if I could make a great movie, but I knew it was a place I had to go to grow,” she said. “As a screenwriter in television, you do your job and you hand off the script and you’re basically done. You’re not the last person in the process. It allowed me to be a little asleep at the wheel. Trying my hardest meant directing.”
Directing pushed her off the writers-room sofa and into a danger zone. To her delight, Soloway found she liked it.
“I can’t have a conversation with my cinematographer about what lens he’s using or what film stock we’re going to shoot,” she admitted. “But I can create an environment where he feels empowered to make those choices, and I can make my actors feel comfortable in difficult moments.”
Like when a character is having the orgasm of a lifetime.
“Kathryn was so game,” Soloway said. “All of us were in that risk space. It was my first feature, my [director of photography’s] first feature, her first starring role. She just went there and trusted me. . . . We had an intimate closed set, just the four of us,” the actors, director and cameraman.
It must have worked. Soloway won the best director award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
“Afternoon Delight,” written and directed by Jill Soloway, opens on Friday, Aug. 30 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St.) For information, call (212) 260-7289.