It has been ten years since Lena Dunham announced “I think I may be the voice of my generation… or at least a voice of a generation” in the first season of HBO’s Girls. On the one hand, I can’t believe it’s been a whole decade since the dawn of the Dunham headlines and controversies — it feels like just yesterday I was telling everyone how this guy Adam Driver was going to win an Oscar someday. On the other hand, well, I can quite easily believe it’s been a whole decade. In some ways it feels like longer. The entire TV and movie industry has gone through about three reinventions since then, and the Lena Dunham Media Experience has ebbed and flowed maybe 25 times. I won’t recap or relitigate it all here, but will proceed on the assumption that both you and I are prepared to watch this film with an receptive, open mind.
I was somewhat surprised to learn that this is Dunham’s first feature directorial effort since her HBO breakout ten years ago despite her active creative output since. She had two previous films, 2010 indie hit and Criterion selection Tiny Furniture and 2009 college film Creative Nonfiction. But after a twelve-year silver-screen drought, she has two 2022 releases — this and the adaptation of the children’s novel Catherine, Called Birdy.
Sharp Stick is a sexual coming-of-age story about Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old assistant caretaker for special needs kids. She has been sexually stunted due to her shy nature and her self-consciousness about her scars following a radical hysterectomy she had during a medical emergency as a kid.
The movie breaks cleanly into two halves — the first tracing Sarah Jo’s affair with the father of the family she assists, and the second navigating Sarah Jo’s emotional fallout and redemption scheme once the affair goes sour. Although there are some very distinctly Dunham lines of dialogue throughout (when she describes her uterus “stuck together like bubble gum,” I could have sworn I was watching an episode of Girls), the first half is much more tender and conventional than expected. Meanwhile the second half feels much more like the messy, abrasive product I would have expected from Dunham.
Sharp Stick is a busy movie with a lot of ideas that don’t cohere together. Oddly, one of the ideas the movie is not about is autism. Sarah Jo behaves (and is played by Froseth) on a moment-to-moment basis like she might be neurodivergent, but the film also actively runs away from this idea in other moments, instead linking Sarah Jo’s inexperience to her medical trauma and body shame. It still doesn’t quite track why someone with such a sex-positive and detail-sharing family would be so ignorant — e.g. there’s a very broad gag about Sarah Jo not knowing what a “blow job” is, assuming it has to do blowing air.
(And just in case you expected a Lena Dunham movie to be released without controversy or bitterness, Variety reports on a dispute between the production and an activist over whether Sarah Jo was initially conceived as an autistic character.)
Under the surface, I do think the movie has a few interesting things to say about the precarious, shape-shifting nature of “innocence,” which Sarah Jo navigates as she finds her self-autonomy. Dunham also pokes at (without thoroughly probing) questions about sex in the role of self-definition and the psychological impact of separating sex from procreation — the latter theme of which unites Sarah Jo’s own sterile body and her growing fascination with the performative, exploitative porn she watches.
The movie is billed as a comedy, and there are certainly some ironic and juxtaposed scenarios built into the film: e.g. Sarah Jo decides to learn about sex by creating an alphabet bulletin board, where the ABC’s all come from categories on a porn web site. But I didn’t laugh even once as I was watching, and in fact never had the sensation I was supposed to be laughing. Nonetheless, I’ve found a peculiar amount of enjoyment recalling and reconstructing certain scenes in my head since I watched — e.g. the jarringly vulgar reunion between Sarah Jo and her former flame, Josh (Jon Bernthal).
Dunham’s biggest directorial strength in the film is the same as it was in Girls: finding weird sparks of chemistry between cast members. For example, Dunham (who also plays aggrieved wife Heather) and Bernthal have a bizarre, watchable dynamic as a dysfunctional couple. Yet the film never lets the sparks ignite with proper oxygen. Dunham’s background is in mumblecore, but she doesn’t have the patience as a writer or director to just sit the camera down for a couple minutes and let the dialogue build any proper momentum or shape.
Froseth is quite good as Sarah Jo, though a bit unmoored: she seems just as confused as me as to what exactly to make of the protagonist. But she has energy to spare and plays well with the cast around her, which is very solid. Taylour Paige appears as Froseth’s half-sister, redeeming an uneven character on the page with a strong turn, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as their swarthy mother.
Sharp Stick is about halfway towards something special, but halfway is still a failing grade. As it is, despite a few flashes and good performances, the movie is far too messy to explore any of its ideas or land any of the dark comedy that it desperately wants to.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film