Sundance 2022 Premiere-
Lena Dunham has a distinctive voice, and it entertainingly comes through in every project she creates. “Sharp Stick” is her second feature-length outing as writer and director. As was her first film (2010’s “Tiny Furniture”), this is a film rich in character and surprises.
Kristine Froseth is Sarah Jo, is a 26-year-old woman who is still a virgin and wants to be noticed sexually. She had a hysterectomy in high school and went through menopause at 17. Sarah Jo’s body grew up, but her view on sexuality never had a chance to blossom. Her lack of self-knowledge was formed by her medical issues and gave birth to a naïveté toward life in general.
After becoming attracted to the father of the young boy she watches, she talks him into taking her virginity and the two begin an affair.
Jon Bernthal is the father and Lena Dunham is his pregnant wife. Bernthal plays against type here. Bernthal is perfect playing a desperate man-child, as is Dunham as his moody and all-too-complacent mate. The two share one of the most uncomfortably funny moments in the film that is a shining example of the type of painfully funny writing Dunham is known for.
Sarah Jo’s affair awakens a desire to learn everything about sex. After the tryst ends, she does a deep dive into sex, experimenting with multiple partners and taking copious notes as if she was the head of a research laboratory.
After Bernthal’s character introduces her to porn and urges her to find her favorite actor to follow, Sarah Jo becomes obsessed with an online porn king (Scott Speedman, in an extremely funny turn). She writes him heartfelt letters explaining to him about her life and her sexual odyssey. She feels close to this man, as his videos are made to make any viewer feel as if he is speaking directly to them. This being Lena Dunham’s world, this is an obsession that shall pay off, but not in the way one might imagine.
The supporting cast is very strong. Taylour Paige plays Sarah Jo’s sister who is obsessed with being an online influencer to the point of disconnecting from the real world. The always perfect Jennifer Jason Leigh is their mother, a multiple divorcee who is a bit too relaxed with both of her still-at-home daughters, giving “motherly” advice on the best ways to be an internet star.
As Sarah Jo, Kristine Froseth perfectly captures the character’s wide-eyed desire for knowledge. Sarah Jo is a sweet character and a beaming positive light. Froseth doesn’t make a false step in her portrayal and announces herself as a dedicated performer.
This film breathes with Dunham’s wit and unique style. Her characters are unmistakably human inside and out. Each one can be needy, selfish, funny, horny, confused, and compassionate, like all of us. In Dunham’s works, she doesn’t try to flatter her creations. She allows them to make mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them.
Sarah Jo does learn to steady the ship of her sexuality through an unexpected inspiration. For her character, to quote a line from a Wille Nelson song, “Miracles appear in the strangest of places.”
The most important feat that Dunham achieves with her sophomore feature is (and this is a theme that runs through a great deal of her work) making it sex-positive. There are no apologies for the sexuality held within her characters. Women taking control of their sexuality is quite rare in American cinema. During the Q&A, Dunham stated how she had been “watching films about how we depict female sexuality on screen and how it’s often so inextricably linked to trauma.” The filmmaker wanted Sarah Jo to be curious about it all. Learn as she goes, work it out, and find what she likes. The most human of traits. It is okay to be inquisitive about sex and it is healthy to want to experiment and find what works for us.
The director also gives a positive take on the porn world. While it is true that pornography can be harmful to some, for others it can be healthy. Not everyone gets addicted to it and not every porn film is degrading. There are individuals (and many couples) who use it in positive ways. As Dunham says, “I think we have enough messaging in society… that says porn is ruining sex and it’s making it so hard for people, but I really wanted this to show the way that porn can liberate people.” It is refreshing to see such a sincere opinion expressed in an American film.
“Sharp Stick” recalls the best features of Barbara Loden and Paul Mazursky, but this strong film is Lena Dunham through and through. It is a bold and energizing work that is completely committed to its honesty.
Written and directed by Lena Dunham
Starring Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Taylour Page, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham
Not Yet Rated, 86 Minutes, FilmNation Entertainment