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- Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
Lena Dunham is known for blurring the lines between herself and her protagonists. In her directorial debut, Tiny Furniture, she played a budding young filmmaker, living with her mother and sibling (played by her actual mother and sibling) and forming dysfunctional relationships with feckless men. Then, in Girls, she played Hannah, a frustrated writer living in New York City who thinks she might be “the voice of my generation,” or at least, “a voice, of a generation.” Now, almost five years since the Girls series finale, she is back as the writer/director of Sharp Stick, only this time playing a supporting role.
Kristine Froseth plays Sarah Jo, a 26-year-old woman living in a grey-stucco apartment complex with her oversharing mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and exhibitionist sister Treina (Taylour Paige). Sarah Jo is a virgin and in something of an arrested sexual development, having had an emergency hysterectomy as a teenager. Even without Dunham in the lead role, the director leaves the door open for comparisons between herself and Sarah Jo, having written and spoken publicly about her own hysterectomy in 2018. This parallel gives the film a melancholic intimacy as camera lingers on Sarah Jo pawing at the scars on her lower abdomen. When she articulates her concern that they’ll make her repulsive to sexual partners, her insecurity feels painfully real.
The film follows Sarah Jo’s attempts to overcome her fear of a partner seeing her scars, and address her sexual immaturity. She propositions Josh (Jon Bernthal) – the father of the child she is babysitting – ignoring the complication of his heavily pregnant wife Heather (Lena Dunham). Josh only momentarily resists before the two start an affair; he takes her virginity in the laundry room and introduces her of the joys of sunlit orgasms, hallucinogens, and pornography. Bernthal is the perfect conduit for Dunham’s ability to write alluring but ultimately awful men. His performance allows the sexual encounters to feel tender and convincingly transformative, while managing to convey just how pathetic a figure Josh truly is. Dunham, as Heather, has very little screen time, but proves herself again as a striking comic presence, mining nuggets of black humour from the continual disappointments of her marriage.
The second act leads us into Sarah Jo’s independent voyage of sexual discovery, and is where Sharp Stick disintegrates. Without Bernthal’s presence and the narrative anchor of their affair, Kristine Froseth’s performance, the plot contrivances and even the set design feel increasingly unhinged and jarringly puerile. Where Sarah Jo once felt naïve and innocent, trapped in the trauma of the 17-year-old who went through early menopause, in the latter half of the film, she seems to have regressed to having the mind-set of an actual child. She decorates her room with crude crafts, creating a colourful alphabet list for her wall that could on the wall of a nursery (if A didn’t stand for Anal and B for Bukkake).
Despite her sexual development, she dresses like an oversized toddler and puts on lipstick like a little girl who has broken into her mother’s make up bag. And while this could make for a fascinating commentary on how modern sexual dynamics can ask women to infantilise themselves, the film’s nebulous sex positivity stops it from engaging with any meaningful critique.
There are moments where the film re-grounds itself: Sarah Jo’s dynamics with her sister are helped by the rare talents of Taylour Paige, who plays the absurd but wise wannabe-influencer Treina. Surprisingly moving is also the attachment that forms with Sarah Jo’s porn-star of choice, Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) a caring performer who punctuates his orgy scenes to encourage the others by saying things like “I was raised with sisters and I see that strength in you,” and “you are my best friends.”
Speedman expertly walks the same tightrope that Paige does, maintaining an authentic human sweetness no matter how implausible the character may be. A brief return of Dunham and Bernthal proves extremely welcome, even with just a few, masked, moments of screen time, they offer up more laughs than any of Sarah Jo’s other shenanigans. It seems that Dunham has a directorial sensibility that works best when she is performing at the centre of it. While Sharp Stick is only a lightly amusing mess, it’s still welcome to see Dunham return with a film just bold enough to confirm that she remains “a” distinct voice of “a” generation.