"I hate this. I don't want this. I don't want it!" cries Abby, a mother who's just been hit on the head by her son's baseball in the opening scene of writer-director Stacie Passon's new film, "Concussion." Blood is gushing from the woman's temple, but it's her claustrophobic life — the school committee meetings, the spin classes and the light lunches in suburban New Jersey — that she's protesting.

Abby's grievances are echoed in Jill Soloway's recent movie "Afternoon Delight," which tracks fortysomething mom Rachel, who disrupts her affluent life in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood by bringing a stripper home to live with her, her workaholic husband and their preschool-age son. "I want out. Not out of this marriage, out of this life. We have too much," is her emotional outburst.

The restless, disgruntled American housewife has been an archetype in literature, film and TV for decades. Recently, directors such as Nicole Holofcener and Lisa Cholodenko have been addressing the female psyche in films including "The Kids Are All Right" (Cholodenko) and "Enough Said" (Holofcener). Television has explored it with characters as diverse as "Mad Men's" Betty Draper, "The Good Wife's" Alicia Florrick, even "Weeds'" Nancy Botwin.

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In an era of a shrinking middle class, patience for the angst felt by such characters might be wearing thin, their discontent seemingly frivolous, their plethora of choices a luxury. Yet in many ways the malaise of Abby, Rachel and others of their cohort can be seen as quite fresh. These characters embody the conflicted generation of women whose mothers were part of the feminist movement. Many pursued careers, gave them up once their children were born and now are debating the wisdom of those choices.

Their real-world counterparts are grappling with books like Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," which encourages women to take a more aggressive stance in the workplace. And they are revisiting their decision-making in articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter's in the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," or "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In," a much-discussed New York Times magazine piece on mothers who a decade ago left the working world for the greener pastures of a child-rearing lifestyle only to discover they want to return to their careers.

A number of these films and TV shows, however, are going beyond where some of these print discussions end: into the bedroom. Their female writer-directors see sex as a critical part of the conversation and an extreme catalyst for change.

"We assumed that we could have it all," said Caroline Libresco, senior programmer and director of special programs at the Sundance Institute. Libresco oversaw the inclusion of "Concussion" and "Afternoon Delight" in this year's festival. "Some women are able to achieve that and most are not. Most are exhausted, overworked or finding themselves as a '50s-style housewife, really dissatisfied and needing to reassess."

'Desperation' responses

Passon and Soloway came to their projects as a result of their own midlife reevaluations.

For Passon, a commercial director and producer, "Concussion" was a response to her own malaise, experienced when she and her partner moved to Montclair, N.J., to raise their two young children. The financial crisis hit, and Passon saw her jobs dry up.

"I just stayed home and painted the house," said Passon, 44. "I thought we would move to the suburbs and everything would be fantastic. But I looked around me and saw a modern-day Peyton Place, and it scared me. It happens when your kids go to school and they don't need you so much anymore. If you're not working, you find yourself isolated. A desperation sets in."

Passon decided to write a film in which the main character, played by Robin Weigert, starts satisfying her unmet sexual needs outside the home — first hiring a hooker, then becoming a female prostitute herself, one who meets with her female customers ahead of time to learn their specific needs and desires. "I sort of paralleled what Abby was going through. I just didn't do it with sex. I did it with filmmaking," said Passon with a laugh. "I hired an emotional surrogate, and I shot it."

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For Soloway, "Afternoon Delight" was born of her frustrations with a career that on paper looked perfect. Best known as a writer and producer on HBO's "Six Feet Under" and Showtime's "United States of Tara," she was also married with two children yet anxious for more. Most of her frustrations came from always being the second-in-command on the popular shows. "I did have that middle-of-the-night phrase, 'It's not enough,' always in my head. Life isn't adding up to enough. You're not doing enough, or if you died tomorrow, did any of it matter enough?" she recalled.

Like Passon, Soloway directed her midlife frustrations into her directorial debut. "It was my place I was running off to during the day. It was the place where I was seen, where I was myself, where I was growing. And all the while I was questioning, how do I make this fit with being a mom?"

Both Passon and Soloway's films are in the micro, under-$1-million range, made in their hometowns using, in some cases, their own houses, minivans and sometimes even their children.

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Holofcener, meanwhile, made her film in the studio system with Fox Searchlight as the backer, yet she is still able to address the complex emotions that come with motherhood in "Enough Said," though the film, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a single mother, is more about grappling with her daughter's pending departure to college.

Rather than focus on how a woman regains her personal identity once she has a child, Holofcener focuses on the redefining after the kids leave. "It is a massive transition, very similar to having a child," said Louis-Dreyfus, who has one child in college and another set to leave in a few years.