Sharp Stick, 2022.
Written and directed by Lena Dunham.
Starring Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Sarah Jo is a naïve 26-year-old living on the fringes of Hollywood with her mother and sister. She just longs to be seen. When she begins an affair with her older employer, she is thrust into an education on sexuality, loss, and power.
Lena Dunham’s new feature film is also her first since 2010 – having spent much of the interim working on her hit HBO series Girls – and while this unhinged dramedy about sexual blossoming doesn’t always sing, it certainly hits enough irreverent, sex-positive notes to work more than not.
Naive 26-year-old virgin Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) lives in LA with her strung-out mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and influencer half-sister Treina (Taylour Paige), while working as a carer for Zach, a young boy with Down syndrome. Sarah’s sex life has been stunted by a radical hysterectomy she had as a teenager, leaving her eager to lose her virginity and awkwardly propositioning Zach’s effervescent, handsome father Josh (Jon Bernthal). The pair soon enough embark on a passionate extra-marital affair, though this is just the start of Sarah Jo discovering what pleasure truly is.
Dunham has always been a provocative storyteller, and it’s clear from mere minutes into Sharp Stick that she’s lost none of her edge during her quieter recent years. Dunham’s ear for punchily off-kilter dialogue remains, particularly during several embarrassingly frank sit-downs between Sarah Jo, Treina, and their chronic over-sharer of a mother. How many movies can you recall where a mother quizzes her kids on the name for a penis that’s wider than it is long? It’s a chode, by the way.
This is just one example, and much as Dunham sought to challenge preconceptions of what glossy premium cable entertainment could and couldn’t show with Girls, she evidently relishes taking audiences out of their comfort zones here, forcing them to endure a number of deeply discomforting, seemingly intentionally elongated scenarios.
This includes but is not limited to a lengthy sex scene between Sarah Jo and her significantly older suitor Josh – much of the fumble captured through a queasy unbroken take – a “next time” party for Treina after not taking a pregnancy to term, and surely one of the most cringe-worthy depictions of a woman going into labour ever filmed.
There are times when Dunham’s storytelling lurches too far into self-conscious weirdness, for sure, such is the cost of toying with audiences and what they’re primed to expect from even the most permissive coming-of-age sex comedy.
On top of this is the film’s slightly odd treatment of the pandemic. For long swaths of the story you’d forget you’re watching a movie existing within our own bizarre present, only for a few select characters to don masks, and in one late moment finally mention COVID-19 by name. With so much of the film taking place in a few private residences, it probably makes sense that the references to the pandemic wouldn’t be overpoweringly blatant. In terms of Sarah Jo’s story it’s basically irrelevant, if rooting the film in “reality.”
But what isn’t irrelevant is Dunham’s bold engagement with sexual discovery. The impropriety of Sarah Jo’s relationship with Josh is never in doubt, but Dunham goes to bat for the Internet as a potential tool for good in fostering a young person’s sexual awakening. Yes, the Internet is certainly responsible for warping many young people’s perceptions of healthy sex, but in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the Natalia Dyer-starring Yes God Yes, porn and hookup apps actually get a rare favourable treatment here.
Dunham argues that the Internet can be a democratising tool for people’s sexual agency, complete with a surprisingly sweet climactic message about the role of sex in relationships. It ties an unexpectedly affecting bow on a movie that could be aptly described as really quite deranged, right up to its head-spinning final shot.
Though there are moments in Dunham’s film more patience-testing than enticingly left-field, the courageous performances of her cast should help win many on-the-fence viewers over. Up-and-comer Kristine Froseth gives a remarkable turn as Sarah Jo, at once twitchy with excitement at the new frontier she’s exploring and wide-eyed in a way sure to leave audiences concerned for her wellfare.
And if you’ve ever wanted to see Jennifer Jason Leigh lip-sync to Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” then this is certainly the film for you. She commits harder to the role of a permissive hippie with five divorces to her name than anyone could ever expect of the Oscar-nominated veteran.
But stealing the show just as often is Jon Bernthal, putting yet another against-type feather in his cap as the superficially cool object of Sarah Jo’s affection, who soon enough reveals himself to be an hilariously pathetic middle-aged man-child.
Bernthal’s chiselled jaw and jovial demeanour belie just how much of a loser Josh really is, and Bernthal clearly savours the opportunity to again send-up his typical casting as a gruff alpha male. Scott Speedman also plays a small-but-vital role as Vance Leroy, the dissonantly wholesome and well-rounded porn star who becomes Sarah Jo’s obsession.
Stylistically this is certainly a step-up from Dunham’s prior work, aided by the silky, often dreamlike lensing of rising indie DP Ashley Connor. Yet the film never achieves more potent visual majesty than during a mesmeric mushroom trip sequence during Sarah Jo and Josh’s affair, complete with brief animated coitus.
All in all Sharp Stick won’t do much to dissuade the Dunham-averse, but offers another lived-in and materially strange portrait of the challenges faced by young women seeking to crystallise their own sexual destiny.
Lena Dunham’s first feature in 12 years is an uneven, squirm-inducing curiosity, yet enlivened by fearless performances from its cast – especially Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.