Dunham’s story of a young woman’s sexual awakening is a frustrating mess concealing some honest gems.
Lena Dunham’s latest feature, Sharp Stick, combines her best and worst tendencies. It’s a coming-of-age dramedy about a young woman’s journey of sexual and self-discovery handled with refreshing tenderness and understanding. But it’s also a story that sees Dunham unwisely wading into waters out of her depth, drowning her characters in quirky affectation that distracts from her purpose. Where the film goes is somewhere surprising, affirming, and even beautiful. The issue is its route.
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a 26-year-old woman who has an affair with Josh (Jon Bernthal), the older, married father of the special needs child she babysits. Where Sharp Stick diverges from your standard plot is in the characterization of Sarah Jo, which can honestly only be described as deeply weird. She’s in her mid-20s but looks 15 and dresses like she’s 8. She clearly has trouble relating to most people and comes across as impossibly naive. Everything about her reads as neurodivergent, but after a little backlash at Sundance, Dunham clarified that this isn’t the case.
Unfortunately, that makes it all the more difficult to determine what to make of Sarah Jo. As she enters her sexual awakening, she seems to have absolutely no knowledge of sex whatsoever, despite numerous open conversations with her mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister (Taylour Paige, Zola), for whom no subject is taboo.
We eventually learn that Sarah Jo had an emergency hysterectomy at a young age, sending her into menopause as a teen. Some loose threads tie this trauma to her nature, but the connection feels tenuous. She feels like neither woman nor child, but that isn’t enough to explain her almost alien behavior.
This also makes it challenging to evaluate Froseth’s performance. Obviously a talented actress, Sarah Jo’s mannerisms are so strange and specific and serve the overall film so poorly that it’s hard to say whether she could have done anything to improve it.
It’s a messy film, and so very much of it doesn’t quite work.
Bernthal, as her ill-advised love interest Josh, manages to bring a certain level of tenderness to the character while still radiating Josh’s immaturity. And this is where Dunham deserves some credit: while Josh and Sarah Jo’s relationship is objectively problematic, she has absolutely no interest in making it traumatic.
There’s a real effort to explore sex in all its messiness, the good and the bad, without ever assuming that this means it must include coercion or sexual violence. For once, we can see a woman experimenting with sex in wild and unconventional ways without being forced to watch her suffer.
Scott Speedman’s turn as porn star Vance Leroy is another bright spot. His porn plays solely to the female gaze and provides another avenue of safe sexual discovery for Sarah Jo. Between this and his recent role in Crimes of the Future, I’m genuinely hoping this is the dawn of the Speedman renaissance.
This treatment of sex is where the heart of Dunham’s film lies. Sarah Jo’s personal journey is bizarre, even absurd, but its destination is a place seldom seen on film. Dunham’s direction and Ashley Connor’s cinematography treat it with the gentle golden glow it deserves. Even the seemingly seedy isn’t threatening here.
All of this makes it so difficult to lump Sharp Stick squarely in the camp of Good Film or Bad Film. It’s a messy film, and so very much of it doesn’t quite work. The characterization of Sarah Jo is a serious barrier to entry for the film. Autism activists aren’t wrong to be frustrated or put off by it, even if Dunham denies she’s created an autistic character. Nevertheless, the coding is there, making it impossible to ignore if you can recognize those familiar signs.
If you can make it to the film’s final 30 minutes, viewers will see some moments that will remain lodged in my brain forever. I only wish everything leading up to it wasn’t so frustrating to wade through.
Sharp Stick starts poking audiences in select theatres Friday, July 29th.