movie review

Sharp Stick Is a Strange, Sometimes Sexy Return to Filmmaking for Lena Dunham

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Lena Dunham has been a connoisseur of bad sex for so long in her work that it’s borderline shocking to discover her new film Sharp Stick is about a woman on a positive, if bumpy, journey of erotic self-discovery. This is Dunham we’re talking about, after all. Toward the end of 2010’s Tiny Furniture, her last movie until this year, her character crawled into a drainage pipe to be hastily fucked, fully clothed but without a condom, by a guy who pats her absentmindedly like a dog once he’s finished. Over six seasons of Girls, the sex she portrayed was occasionally pleasurable but more often just humiliating, and always awkward — a battleground for women to wage war against themselves by way of their own insecurities and unfounded bravado. To approach the topic from another perspective, she apparently needed to create a character who’s a carnal blank slate: Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), the heroine of the strange, lopsided, but undeniably compelling Sharp Stick, who has gotten to the age of 26 without having had sex, or encountered porn, or learned what constitutes a blowjob.

Sarah Jo’s naïveté proves to be a liberating force, rather than one that makes her self-conscious. When she has sex for the first time, and her chosen lover — a stay-at-home dad named Josh (Jon Bernthal), whose son with Down syndrome she’s been placed as a caregiver for — curls up in shame over his premature ejaculation, she doesn’t pretend she had an orgasm or rush to reassure him with platitudes. She just asks if they can do it again. Autism sexuality advocate Amy Gravino shared on Twitter that when she’d been approached to consult on the Sharp Stick script a year ago, Sarah Jo was written to be autistic, but then Dunham changed her mind. This feels like something of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment, given the history of non-autistic filmmakers depicting autistic characters onscreen (Sia’s Music is still fresh in the mind) and the fact that as an artist, Dunham barely seems able to get out of her own head, much less attempt to get inside the head of someone who experiences the world in ways that might differ significantly from how she does.

But traces of this initial conception linger on in the film in ways that throw it off balance, for better and worse. Froseth, a doe-eyed 20-something best known for teen dramas The Society and Looking for Alaska, doesn’t play Sarah Jo as though she’s meant to be read as neurodiverse — she plays her, down to her initial girlishly modest styling, like a Kimmy Schmidt type ready to devour life as an immature 20-something after being locked away for her formative years. That characterization clashes with the fact that Sarah Jo lives with her mother, a five-times-married former party girl named Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her aspiring influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige), neither of whom are shy when it comes to talking about their exploits. To contend with Sarah Jo as a character requires accepting that she is a peculiar, if also somewhat poignant, fantasy — one of being able to skip straight to adulthood before venturing into sexual activity, and to therefore be unencumbered by so much of the baggage accrued over that time.

Sarah Jo is not a stand-in for Dunham, who appears in a smaller role as Josh’s amusingly beleaguered and very pregnant wife, Heather. But she and Dunham do share something essential: They’ve both had hysterectomies, Sarah Jo when she was 15 and in serious pain from a congenital abnormality. The experience seems to have thrown her out of sync with women her age. She apologizes to Josh for the scars when propositioning him in the way a restaurant host might for seating diners at a drafty table. Not that she needs to — Josh, a floppy 40-something who spends his days working out and hanging with his boys, suffers from arrested development in a far more normalized way, and doesn’t put up much of a fight. Their first kiss, shot with the pair in profile and Josh gently licking at Sarah Jo’s lips, has a scorching quality that holds up through the pair’s subsequent trysts. Josh may be an utter tool, but he practically purrs with crinkle-eyed satisfaction when he’s with Sarah Jo, and her uninhibited pursuit of her own pleasure makes his giddy intoxication with their affair understandable. She’s as exhilarated as he is, though as soon as he starts making promises about the future, it becomes clear she’s due to get hurt.

Sharp Stick lurches from element to element — the last act introduces a porn star played by Scott Speedman and an unflappable would-be suitor played by Luka Sabbat — which keeps it unpredictable, but also leaves it feeling like it’s just finding its footing when it ends. It has the air of a television-show fragment, and not just because its initial entanglement feels like the stuff of a pilot, something that has to be gotten out of the way to reach the actual premise. It’s also because it introduces characters who feel like they have storylines in the wings. This is true most of all for Marilyn and Treina, who fall deliciously into roles of mentor and mentee when it comes to making a vague living by being beautiful in L.A., with Marilyn talking about the city in terms of “the shine, the dark gleam, the golden men, the musty old ghouls in suits,” like a would-be Eve Babitz. While Sarah Jo could have fallen from outer space, her mother and sister are very much creatures of their place. The trio’s oddball household in a haphazard apartment complex is an inviting fictional location it’d be nice to return to, if only to enjoy the dynamic of three very different women who, despite constant chaos, seem to like each other, and to like themselves.

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Lena Dunham’s Strange, Sometimes Sexy Return to Filmmaking