We know way too much about Lena Dunham—about her upbringing, her neuroses, her health problems—but is that her fault or ours? We think of look-at-me personalities like Dunham as unavoidable, but as your grandmother may have said, it takes two to tango. As your grandmother may also have said, people can surprise you. And Dunham’s second full-length feature film, Sharp Stick—which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend—counts as a surprise, the sort of movie a writer-director makes when she shifts away from trying to prove something and seeks instead only to express something. This is a film made with tenderness, more an exploration than a definitive statement, and a reminder that awkward sex isn’t necessarily bad sex: if anything, it’s the ultimate proof of our bewildering, imperfect humanness.
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a sheltered 26-year-old living with her deadpan, oft-divorced mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and aspiring Instagram influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige) in a cozy but unglamorous Los Angeles apartment. Treina, with her bodacious booty and expertly manicured talons, has everything she needs to sell her hotness on the Internet, so why not? But these sisters, a duo with a close, relaxed relationship, are painted as comic extremes: Sarah Jo may be 26, but with her quizzical, Keane-painting eyes and pillowy pout, she appears at least 10 years younger. Unlike Treina, who looks great in anything Spandex and sparkly, Sarah Jo favors frumpy-sweet cardigan-and-skirt combos straight out of the sister-wife catalog. Her mother has seen it all, and her sister has more boyfriends than she can count, but Sarah Jo’s exaggerated freshness makes her seem like a being from another world, a fantasy landscape of lily pads and rainbows.
Yet there’s a reason Sarah Jo seems to have simultaneously frozen herself in a kind of childhood, even as she presents herself as a prim, middle-aged matron. Painful health problems forced her to undergo a radical hysterectomy at age 15; she went through menopause at 17. She seems to have chosen “against” sex, instead cultivating her innate kindness and patience. She works as a caregiver to a child with disabilities, whose parents, Josh (Jon Bernthal) and Heather (Dunham), part of the upper-middle-class matcha-smoothie set, both value her and condescend to her.
Everything shifts when Sarah Jo comes on to Josh, a move that we don’t see coming, given Sarah Jo’s almost aggressive innocence. Josh seems to be a decent guy; he adores his son and is far more engaged with his upbringing than the boy’s mother is. (Then again, she appears to be the breadwinner of the family; she’s also heavily pregnant and stressed-out.) The affair that Sarah Jo and Josh tumble into opens a world of joy for Sarah Jo. Josh is a classic man-child, but he’s at least a gentle, considerate one—until he’s not. The inevitable end of this relationship sends Sarah Jo into a tailspin of uncertainty and exploration. She wonders if Josh turned against her because she was “bad” at sex, and so she sets out on a kind of fairytale journey, hoping to educate herself by exposing herself to a range of sexual experiences. (The list tacked to her wall, written out in magic marker on colored paper, begins with “anal” and moves through the alphabet from there.) She also trawls the Internet until she finds the porn star who’s exactly right for her. His name is Vance Leroy and he’s played, wonderfully, by Scott Speedman. Through the screen, he becomes a kind of guru to her, at one point declaiming words to live by: “Nobody is a sex genius!”
Sarah Jo is so unworldly that you fear for her—she’s hardly equipped to be meeting strangers for sex. But Sharp Stick isn’t a parable about the dangers of the real world. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the wish is both simple and seemingly unattainable: Sarah Jo wants to open herself to pleasure, to understand herself better and to assuage her anxiety over her perceived lack of skills and experience. This is a story about a search for openness in a closed-off world—a world where the Internet is better at providing the illusion of interconnectedness than it is at actually connecting us.
Whether or not you care about Dunham’s semi-meteoric rise (beginning with her acclaimed, if self-conscious, 2010 directorial debut Tiny Furniture and moving through her HBO show, Girls, which allegedly reflected the sexual anxieties of a whole generation) and semi-dramatic fall (spurred by, among other things, an annoying memoir), Sharp Stick is an affirmation of one thing: it’s never a good idea to write off filmmakers or writers who have underwhelmed us in the past. Because as we change, they change too. Dunham has said she began writing the film as a way of dealing with her own health crises—among them, she underwent a hysterectomy in 2018, after years of suffering with endometriosis—though she has also said that at a certain point the characters took on a life of their own, wholly separate from hers. Sharp Stick is an imperfect picture—despite its title, it has very few sharp edges, and it could use a few more, or at least some mild dramatic tension—but it’s a searching one, a tentative examination of how risky it is to open ourselves to intimacy and happiness. And there’s so little sex in American movies; it’s refreshing to see sex scenes directed with both warmth and a sense of carnality. Sometimes, the most you can ask of an artist is to try something different. No matter what you think of her, Lena Dunham has done just that.
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