Lena Dunham’s first movie in 12 years is getting hammered by critics after its Sundance premiere. Variety calls it her first disappointment. Screen Daily says it’s frustratingly uneven. Entertainment Weekly calls it tone-deaf.
This review will not add to that noise. Instead, “Sharp Stick” offers a genuinely weird/sometimes-funny take on a young woman’s emerging sexuality. And yes, it will be controversial. And yes, you might not like it.
The central character is Sarah Jo, played by Norway’s Kristine Froseth. She lives with her pot-smoking mother (a five-time divorced Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her adopted Black sister, Taylour Paige, who shakes her booty for TikTok and aspires to become a social media influencer.
Much of the criticism of the movie in the press has focused on the weird sexual innocence of Sarah Jo, who dresses in bows and ruffles and acts far younger than her 26 years. She works for a family that’s the opposite of hers — a powerful but pregnant real estate broker, played by Dunham, who has a slacker but hunky husband Josh (Jon Bernthal) and a mentally disabled son for whom Sarah Jo is a caregiver.
There’s some validity to the criticism about the Sarah Jo character, since it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s 26 could be so naive about sex. But Dunham tries to explain it. When Sarah Jo was 15, she had to have a hysterectomy and multiple operations, and since she knows she can’t have biological children, she has shut down all sexual interest.
That changes, however, as she starts developing her first crush, which turns out to be Josh, mainly because of the charming and loving way he interacts with his son Zach (Liam Michael Saul).
One day, while Zach is asleep and Josh is doing laundry, Sarah Jo enters the room and shows Josh her scars from the hysterectomy and says she is still a virgin and wants to have sex with him. He is taken aback, but in typical Dunham fashion, he’s a highly complicated failed kind of guy, and he agrees. Awkward sex ensues.
So do big complications for Josh and Sarah Jo. But Josh introduces Sarah Jo to online porn, and she begins to want to explore all sorts of sex acts, in part inspired by her favorite porn star Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman),
Sarah Jo literally writes out all the sex acts that she wants to explore on a piece of carbon paper, and checks a box next to each item once she had done it. A is for anal, etc.
Dunham, who has always been a provocateur since her freshman film “Tiny Furniture” and her six years of “Girls” on HBO, makes no apology for possibly suggesting that porn might be able to offer a way to explore sexuality identity. And that’s probably what’s causing some of the criticism of “Sharp Stick.”
The question about porn was raised in a Q&A session after the “Sharp Stick” premiere online, and Dunham pointed out that Speedman’s character is one of the few to understand and support Sarah Jo. (Sarah Jo has written to the porn star to ask about being good at sex.)
Dunham says she sees “Sharp Stick” as an exploration of sexuality but also one of making a family when you can’t have a biological one. The movie’s ending is an apparent attempt to suggest that Sarah Jo might come into her own as a woman and enjoy healthy relationships. Dunham says it’s her most personal film yet.
It’ll be interesting to see how the movie plays with Dunham’s fans.
Single film tickets to online Sundance screenings are available at festival.sundance.org/tickets/#