‘Sharp Stick’ review: Lena Dunham returns with sexual comedy
Twelve years after her 2010 breakout indie darling Tiny Furniture, New York-born writer, director, producer and actress Lena Dunham returns with Sharp Stick, a similarly intimate and vulnerable coming-of-age sex comedy back to feature filmmaking. Dunham’s latest film is about Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old domestic worker who lives on the outskirts of Hollywood with her mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and sister, Treina (Taylour Paige).
Sarah Jo’s family is female-centric and sexually open, with five-time divorcee Marilyn and adoptive sister and flirtatious TikToker Treina often dominating family conversations about sex, men, and desire. Despite this, the young woman is emotionally atrophied when it comes to intimacy; Not only does she appear childish in her looks and self-image (she wears prairie dresses, bright sneakers, aprons, and subtle frilly nightgowns), but she is also insecure and underdeveloped when it comes to directing her own sexuality.
It’s all the more remarkable when, hoping to lose her virginity, she begins a sexual relationship with Josh (Jon Bernthal), the doting father of her young protégé, Zach (Liam Michel Saux). Despite Josh’s superficial charm, it’s clear from the start that he’s a consistent manly kid. His pregnant wife Heather (Dunham), just weeks away from giving birth, is the breadwinner of the family and leaves home each morning in a rush of stress and anxiety. Seemingly unemployed, Josh is quick to shrug off Heather’s legitimate concerns with the kind of boyish charm that’s utterly frustrating to anyone who’s experienced it firsthand, but utterly alluring to the inexperienced Sarah Jo. He is, in his own words, “like… a loser”.
Dunham is adept at her signature ability to craft a simple yet complex orbit for these three characters. The pleasure of seeing Josh, Sarah Jo and Heather on screen comes not only from Dunham’s talent for writing and filming beautifully extended moments of intimacy between Josh and Sarah Jo, but also from the way they use space for their inner life for all three opens completely confuse and inevitably disagree and argue with each other. We are able to reflect both the ugly and uncomfortable, the exciting and romantic, the humorous and happy, and the daunting and shameful, with the understanding that one set of experiences cannot come about without the other.
However, this only constitutes one half of Dunham’s film, with the second half of “Sharp Stick” devoting itself to Sarah Jo’s almost semantic ambition to learn and learn more about her sexuality while continuing to understand it. Her self-education is open and devoid of metaphors, and in its early stages is shaped more by the world around her than by any sort of autonomous sexual desire. It is in these later moves of the film that Sarah Jo’s childlike characterization is most unsettling.
Sarah Jo’s infantilization is never fully developed in “Sharp Stick”; it exists as it is and – apart from the film’s welcome tonal and thematic elements – we’re never quite sure why. This reality has no history, only a present, and Sarah Jo’s character is coded as neurodivergent in many ways (although Dunham was quick to disprove this), further problematizing this deficiency. Alongside this lives the positioning of her sexuality in comparison to Sister Treina, which brings with it worrying racist implications that are completely ignored by the film. There is certainly a white imaginary at work here, although Dunham cannot see it himself.
These issues don’t exist outside of the film, but feel inherent to the pattern of Sharp Stick as a whole. The film itself feels like it emerged fully formed from its writer’s mind, for better or for worse. It’s a study of women’s sexuality, desire, and autonomy that succeeds as it stumbles, a feminist storytelling method that prioritizes the pursuit of desire over narrative continuity. She does not concern herself with the familiar, but with the disorder of real life, which here is inseparable from her own resources. Above all, it speaks to the way Dunham continues to craft works of so many things – complex or naïve, annoying or pleasant, from cores of her own experience.
Rated: R, for strong sexual content, some nudity, consistent language, and drug use
Duration: 1 hour 26 minutes
To play: Begins July 29, Landmark Nuart; available August 16th on digital and VOD
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-07-31/review-sharp-stick-lena-dunham-female-sexuality-desire ‘Sharp Stick’ review: Lena Dunham returns with sexual comedy