There is, admittedly, something charming about Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham’s return to filmmaking after taking an 11-year hiatus after Tiny Furniture. If nothing, Dunham should get some praise for her casting. Getting Jon Bernthal as a dopey and horny house husband, Scott Speedman as an absurdly positive tattooed porn star, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a hyper-sexualized mother of two is a win in its own way. But pushing a bit beneath the surface of this feature reveals much of what makes Dunham so problematic.
Love her or hate her, it’s hard to deny that Dunham has a voice, one that’s loudly opinionated. But when you have that, it also means you have to weather the storm of criticism that comes with a loud opinion. There’s been a lot that’s been said about Sharp Stick, particularly about her lead Kristine Froseth’s naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo. It’s not so odd that Sarah Jo is a virgin at her age, but not understanding oral sex and approaching sexual conquest like a school project brings into question a lot of things about this film.
To begin, Sarah Jo is a caregiver to Zach, a kid with an intellectual disability. While helping out Zach, she meets his dad Josh (Bernthal) while his mom (Dunham) is away at work. Charmed by Josh’s masculine but slightly dim-witted personality, the two begin a passionate affair. But we know from Sarah Jo’s home life that she is hardly sheltered. When she’s not looking after kids, she’s taking twerking videos and thirst trap pictures for her sister (Taylour Paige). Her mom has been married and divorced countless times and sex is a casual dinner table subject.
It doesn’t help also that Froseth looks incredibly young. If she hadn’t revealed that she was 26, she could pass for 16. Worse is that she seems to be, in some way, developmentally stunted. Her laptop is covered in stickers, she dresses like a middle schooler, her understanding of sex seems to be seriously stunted (she doesn’t even know what porn is?). While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a virgin at 26, this level of naivete sheds a particularly insidious light on her relationship with Josh.
While we’re supposed to judge Josh for his infidelity, the problem never seems to be the obvious one, that Sarah Jo looks very young for her age. As attractive as Bernthal is, their passionate affair is wildly problematic beyond just the obvious. But Dunham never really touches on that. Instead, when Josh tosses Sarah Jo aside, we watch as she makes posters of sexual experiences (A for Anal, B for Bukkake…) and posts them on her wall like a checklist. She then begins a series of random hookups, desperate to prove herself.
At the very least, Sharp Stick stays on the same tone but what exactly is the message here? Is Dunham trying to make a comment on her hysterectomy? If she is, it is mired in the problematic appearance and aesthetic of her protagonist. By the time Scott Speedman’s wildly unrealistic feminist porn star appears, Sharp Stick feels like Dunham’s fever dream. Even worse, the ending is uninspired and lacks a true conclusion.
It’s unnecessary to dogpile onto Dunham for her past scandals and controversies, more than enough has been said on it, but Sharp Stick presents the idea that perhaps Dunham simply doesn’t have much more to say. Or perhaps should take a sharp turn away from the subjects that she’s already left well-tread.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.