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Lena Dunham has always courted controversy — as a writer, director, actress and public figure. In the decade since she splashed onto the scene with her feature Tiny Furniture, Dunham worked consistently on both the large and small screen, becoming a much-debated fixture in pop culture. Every accomplishment and misstep has been discussed to death on and offline, with an intrusive focus on her work, body and personal life. Dunham wears many hats, and people have strong opinions about every single one of them.
It’s fitting, then, that her new feature, Sharp Stick, is as strange and provocative as its title and pedigree suggest. Written and directed by Dunham in the midst of the pandemic with a mainly female crew, Sharp Stick is an audaciously sexual film, marveling at the pursuit of feminine pleasure. For better or worse, this is Dunham at her most liberated in years with a freewheeling tone that shakes off years of silence and scrutiny.
A caustic story of family and sexuality, Sharp Stick straddles the line between coming-of-age tale and sex comedy, creating an odd mix of irony and sincerity. But rather than make grand observations about What It Means to Be a Woman Today, Dunham simply observes a young woman entering the adult world in a grand, bizarre and purely unique fashion.
The film tells the story of Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) a childlike 26-year-old woman living with her sister Treina (Taylour Paige) and mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Southern California. Sarah Jo, bursting with wide-eyed optimism, is the kind of person who loves everyone, with a genuine desire to listen to their problems. There’s something almost old-world about Sarah Jo, who has the clothes of a 1950s teenager and the manners of an eager novitiate. She spends her days helping her landlord mother, shooting videos of her influencer sister and listening intently to their stories of romantic and sexual exploits.
Instead of dating or hanging out with friends, Sarah Jo only ventures out of the house to look after Zach (Liam Michel Saux), a young autistic boy with a busy, pregnant mother, Heather (Dunham), and unreliable father, Josh (Jon Bernthal). Sarah Jo genuinely loves her job, displaying a real warmth and natural maternal instinct with Zach.
Unfortunately, due to a radical hysterectomy in high school, Sarah Jo is unable to have children and seems to have skipped over the adolescent stage of sexual discovery entirely. She’s a virgin and demonstrates a shockingly limited understanding of love and sex. Everything changes when she sets her sights on Josh, latching on to his playful, easygoing nature while conveniently ignoring the dangerous risks involved with adultery.
Though he turns her down at first, Josh quickly succumbs to Sarah Jo’s strange charms, and they begin an enthusiastic affair. He takes her virginity, introduces her to hallucinogens and makes empty promises of leaving his wife and starting a new life with her and Zach. From early on, it’s obvious where the relationship is going, but it’s just the starting point to her awakening, not the destination. When Josh introduces Sarah Jo to porn, the film shifts into an exploration of sexual technique as she tries to rush through years of sexual exploration in a matter of weeks.
With her hit HBO series Girls, Dunham mastered the art of taking a basic set-up and spinning it into something uncomfortable and surprising. A warehouse party leads to Shoshana accidentally smoking crack. A dispute over trash leads Hannah to consider settling down with her hunky doctor neighbor. Many of the episodes had the structure of a short story, using small, odd occurrences to facilitate growth and changes in her characters.
In Sharp Stick, every little moment is integral to Sarah Jo’s evolution from a naive virgin to a more worldly, modern woman. Dunham’s camera looks on her with patience and understanding, balancing out the broader moments with tender heart-to-hearts and a story that recognizes her pain and sexual confusion as worth taking seriously. Much like in Girls, Tiny Furniture and even the ill-fated series Camping, Dunham’s greatest strength as a filmmaker lies in her ability to create achingly real, relatable characters within a heightened comedic framework.
And yet, despite the empathy of Dunham’s narrative intentions, Sarah Jo’s characterization is troubling. Beyond the basic naïveté of being a virgin, her behavior is alarmingly childlike. When her mom and sister pass a blunt around, Sarah Jo eats ice cream. In one scene, she goes to a bar dressed like a girl on her way to Sunday school, complete with a large bow on her head. In her room, she has lists of sex acts displayed like something out of a kindergarten classroom. These elements are so pronounced that it’s impossible to separate them from her sex scenes, making them genuinely jarring to watch.
What is the significance of Sarah Jo being this way? Yes, she’s sexually repressed, but how can she be this naive considering the sexual openness of her mother and sister? How did she manage to glean nothing from her 26 years on Earth? It doesn’t help matters that Froseth — who was roughly the age of her character at the time of filming — looks much younger than she is, and the costume choices push her uncomfortably into fetish object territory. Much like Julia Garner in the underseen gem Electrick Children or Julianne Hough in Diablo Cody’s ill-conceived directorial debut Paradise, Sarah Jo is extremely sheltered, but without the context of religion-based repression and isolation to explain it.
Underneath its provocative shell, Sharp Stick feels messy and singular, as if it burst fully formed from Dunham’s mind. In 2018, the director underwent a hysterectomy after years of struggling with endometriosis. Knowing this, her performance as a frazzled pregnant woman in the film comes off as especially bittersweet. Sarah Jo’s sexual awakening while grappling with her own infertility makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with Heather’s pregnancy and sexual isolation from her husband.
None of it adds up to a coherent thesis on love or sex, but it doesn’t really need to. And there’s something thrilling about Dunham’s refusal to give her film a clear social intent. Much like Sarah Jo’s sexual dalliances, Sharp Stick is ultimately about the excitement of exploration.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: FilmNation Entertainment, A Good Thing Productions
Cast: Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Lena Dunham, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Taylour Paige, Luka Sabbat, Scott Speedman, Liam Michel Saux, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Director/ Writer: Lena Dunham
Producers: Lena Dunham, Michael P. Cohen, Kevin Turen, Katia Washington
Executive producers: Ben Browning, Glen Basner, Taylour Paige, Jon Bernthal, Kenneth Yu, William Greenfield
Co-executive producer: Harrison Kreiss
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Costume designer: Katina Danabassis
Production designer: Margaux Rust
Editor: Catrin Hedstrom
Music by: Luis Felber, Matt Allchin
Music supervising: Jen Malone, Nicole Weisberg
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