Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick Is Surprisingly Sweet and Searching—and a Marked Departure for the Director

We know way too much about Lena Dunham—about her upbringing, her neuroses, her health problems—but is that her fault or ours? Look-at-me characters like Dunham are unavoidable. However, as our grandmother said, two is better than one. Your grandmother could have also said that people are capable of surprising you. And Dunham’s second full-length feature film, Sharp Stick—which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend—counts as a surprise, the sort of movie a writer-director makes when she shifts away from trying to prove something and seeks instead only to express something. This is a film made with tenderness, more an exploration than a definitive statement, and a reminder that awkward sex isn’t necessarily bad sex: if anything, it’s the ultimate proof of our bewildering, imperfect humanness.
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Sarah Jo (Kristine Foss) is 26 years old and lives with Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her feisty, divorced mother and Treina (Taylour Paige) in an unassuming Los Angeles apartment. Treina has all the tools she needs to make her hotness known online, thanks to her large booty, well-maintained talons and expertly manicured hair. The sisters have a relaxed, close relationship. Sarah Jo, at 26, looks younger than she actually is. Sarah Jo’s quizzical Keane painting eyes and pout make it seem 10 years older. Treina is a great looking woman in sparkly and Spandex, but Sarah Jo loves frumpy sweet cardigans with skirts from the sister-wife catalog. Her mother has seen it all, and her sister has more boyfriends than she can count, but Sarah Jo’s exaggerated freshness makes her seem like a being from another world, a fantasy landscape of lily pads and rainbows.

Yet there’s a reason Sarah Jo seems to have simultaneously frozen herself in a kind of childhood, even as she presents herself as a prim, middle-aged matron. At age 15, she had to have a radical hysterectomy. She went through menopause in 17 years. She seems to have chosen “against” sex, instead cultivating her innate kindness and patience. As a caregiver for a child with disabilities she is valued by her parents Josh (Jon Bernthal), and Heather (Dunham), both part of an upper-middle-class matcha smoothie set.

Everything shifts when Sarah Jo comes on to Josh, a move that we don’t see coming, given Sarah Jo’s almost aggressive innocence. Josh seems to be a decent guy; he adores his son and is far more engaged with his upbringing than the boy’s mother is. (Then again, she appears to be the breadwinner of the family; she’s also heavily pregnant and stressed-out.) Sarah Jo finds joy in the relationship that Josh and Sarah Jo have. Josh is a classic man-child, but he’s at least a gentle, considerate one—until he’s not. Sarah Jo is thrown into an uncertain and exploratory tailspin by the inevitable ending of their relationship. She wonders if Josh turned against her because she was “bad” at sex, and so she sets out on a kind of fairytale journey, hoping to educate herself by exposing herself to a range of sexual experiences. (The list tacked to her wall, written out in magic marker on colored paper, begins with “anal” and moves through the alphabet from there.) She also trawls the Internet until she finds the porn star who’s exactly right for her. His name is Vance Leroy and he’s played, wonderfully, by Scott Speedman. Through the screen, he becomes a kind of guru to her, at one point declaiming words to live by: “Nobody is a sex genius!”

Sharp Stick – Director Lena Dunham
Sundance InstituteKristine Froseth (left) and Jon Bernthal (right) appear in Sharp Stick

Sarah Jo is so unworldly that you fear for her—she’s hardly equipped to be meeting strangers for sex. But Sharp Stick isn’t a parable about the dangers of the real world. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the wish is both simple and seemingly unattainable: Sarah Jo wants to open herself to pleasure, to understand herself better and to assuage her anxiety over her perceived lack of skills and experience. This is a story about a search for openness in a closed-off world—a world where the Internet is better at providing the illusion of interconnectedness than it is at actually connecting us.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

Whether or not you care about Dunham’s semi-meteoric rise (beginning with her acclaimed, if self-conscious, 2010 directorial debut Tiny FurnitureMoving through her HBO series, Girls,(“which allegedly reflected sexual anxieties for a whole generation”) and semi-dramatic (stirred, amongst other things by an annoying memoir). Sharp Stick is an affirmation of one thing: it’s never a good idea to write off filmmakers or writers who have underwhelmed us in the past. Because they also change with us. Dunham has said she began writing the film as a way of dealing with her own health crises—among them, she underwent a hysterectomy in 2018, after years of suffering with endometriosis—though she has also said that at a certain point the characters took on a life of their own, wholly separate from hers. Sharp Stick is an imperfect picture—despite its title, it has very few sharp edges, and it could use a few more, or at least some mild dramatic tension—but it’s a searching one, a tentative examination of how risky it is to open ourselves to intimacy and happiness. And there’s so little sex in American movies; it’s refreshing to see sex scenes directed with both warmth and a sense of carnality. You can’t ask an artist to be boring. Whatever your opinion of Lena Dunham, she has accomplished just that.

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