‘Sharp Stick’: Everyone in Lena Dunham’s troublesome film starts out lost, stays there
Naive young woman has a disturbing sexual awakening in movie from the creator of ‘Girls.’
The greatly talented storyteller Lena Dunham made a triumphant splash in 2010 at the age of 24 as the writer-director-star of the film festival darling “Tiny Furniture,” followed by the wildly successful “Girls.” The groundbreaking series had a six-year run on HBO from 2012-2017 and turned Dunham into a household name who seemed to be involved in one controversy or another every few months through the 2010s.
Dunham continues to be a prolific writer, producer and actor, so it comes as something of a surprise to realize “Sharp Stick” is her first feature film in 12 years.
Unfortunately, though we’re reminded of Dunham’s gift for crackerjack dialogue and her considerable talents for creating memorable visuals out of even the most mundane of settings, e.g., a laundry room or the steps outside a semi-shabby apartment complex, “Sharp Stick” is a rather sour and troublesome film—a strange hybrid that sometimes plays like a Fractured Fairy Tale and is populated by razor-thin characters who behave in an inconsistent manner and exist in a world that alternates between gritty reality and some kind of bizarro alternative world where things just don’t add up.
Utopia presents a film written and directed by Lena Dunham. Rated R (for strong sexual content, some nudity, language throughout and drug use). Running time: 86 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.
The first signs of inconsistency in “Sharp Stick” come early and often, as we witness the home lives of Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a former wannabe starlet who has been married five times and now manages a small Los Angeles apartment building and spends most of her waking days getting inebriated in one form or another, and her two daughters.
Treina (Taylour Paige), who was adopted, says she’s been crushing on boys since she was born and is trying to make a living as a social media influencer whose main skill is posing for provocative photos and videos. Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is 26 but dresses as if she’s an Amish pre-teen and has the emotional and intellectual maturity of someone half her age. (The Sarah Jo character is so naïve and socially different she could be on the spectrum, leading to a controversy at Sundance that prompted Dunham and the filmmaking team to issue a statement saying, “Nothing about Sarah Jo was coded to suggest or convey neurodivergence.”)
We learn Sarah Jo was traumatized physically and psychologically after an emergency hysterectomy when she was a teenager—but that still doesn’t explain why she’s no incredibly unsophisticated in matters of sex and relationships, seeing as how her mother and her sister speak in such frank and explicit terms. This woman has to be informed there’s something called porn on the Internet; at one point she Googles, “Two people having sex together,” and is shocked (and excited) by what comes up.
Sarah Jo works as a special-needs caregiver to a boy named Zach (Liam Michel Saux), in a spacious and lovely home where Zach’s mother, Heather (Dunham), a successful real estate broker who is weeks away from giving birth, is forever feeling harried and overwhelmed as she rushes out the door to her next appointment, while Zach’s dad, Josh (Jon Bernthal), is the cool, stay-at-home dad who sports the tousled hair and wardrobe (sweats and hoodies) of a guy who never grew up.
Out of nowhere, Sarah Jo decides it’s time to lose her virginity, and seeing as how Josh is right there and seems to be the only man she actually knows, she announces her intentions to Josh, who says all the right things for about 90 seconds before they’re going at it.
For a time, “Sharp Stick” plays like some kind of 1990s forbidden-fruit affair movie, with Sarah Jo and Josh engaging in a furious, voracious, all-consuming love affair. When they’re found out, Sarah Jo discovers Josh is a serial philanderer who never planned to follow through on his promises to leave Heather, and the film undergoes a change in gears so sudden and harsh you might experience whiplash.
While her supposedly worldly mother and sister remain oblivious to just about everything going on in Sarah Jo’s life, Sarah Jo creates an A-to-Z checklist of sexual acts (none of which can be spelled out here) and arranges to hook up with a steady stream of strangers she meets on the Internet. In the process, she becomes enamored to the point of obsession with a New Age porn star named Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman), whom she views as some kind of Sexual Savior.
Where is this all going, and what does it all mean? Every main character in “Sharp Stick” is hopelessly lost on one level or another, but nobody really grows or reaches any kind of self-actualization. Sarah Jo’s so-called sexual awakening seems desperate, self-destructive and dangerous, and the attempt to tack something resembling a happy ending onto her journey feels forced and implausible.
Perhaps we’re supposed to feel Sarah Jo has become empowered, but we’re left feeling she needs help now more than ever and isn’t likely to get it.