Lena Dunham is a storyteller who follows the beat of her own drummer. Whether it’s her first film, the independent comedy Tiny Furniture, or her hit HBO series Girls, Dunham does things her way, and you’re either in or you’re out. So far, I have been, so I went into her sophomore feature Sharp Stick at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival with optimism. The first half of this movie had me slightly rethinking that optimism, but once Dunham settles into her narrative, something really interesting and compelling emerges. The combination of Dunham and Sundance has long been inevitable, and while this may not be what you’re expecting, it’s well worth your time.
Sharp Stick is a comedy that brings sex positivity and a lack of judgment to a woman’s journey of self-discovery. Watching our protagonist awaken sexually is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and never icky. Dunham wants us just to be along for the ride, and we certainly are. One of the final scenes hammers home her point, but it manages to also be done in a crowd-pleasing manner. If you liked Girls, you’ll almost certainly be on board for this flick.
26 year old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is about as naive as an adult gets. While she seems happy, her existence is very much in the shadows, especially considering how much her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister Treina (Taylour Paige) have embraced the Hollywood life. Sarah Jo, however, has a scar from her childhood and is content with less, even if she has her own desires. Working as a babysitter for Josh (Jon Bernthal) and Heather (Dunham), a chance encounter sets her on a new path.
Left alone one day, Sarah Jo reveals to Josh her desire to lose her virginity. In short order, an affair begins. Of course, the affair is doomed, but for Sarah Jo, it’s a start. What begins as an experience with one person becomes a quest to try everything. Especially once she discovers internet pornography, a literal ABC’s of sex is on the table. The more she does, the more she learns about herself, including finding a favorite porn star. How this resolves itself I’ll let you discover, but Sarah Jo is a character you’ll quickly grow to love.
The central turn by Kristine Froseth is a tremendously engaging one. She’s captivating, whether it’s in her early and more reserved stage, or when she comes alive. Froseth tackles a complex part with gusto, suggesting quirk but never getting twee. Jon Bernthal breathes some life into a role that doesn’t particularly pop on the page. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Taylour Paige don’t have much to do, unfortunately, but they’re welcome presences. Supporting players include Janicza Bravo (yes, the filmmaker), Luka Sabbat, Scott Speedman, and more, including Dunham herself. Froseth is just the central character and easily best in show.
Filmmaker Lena Dunham has a distinct point of view, one which comes across more in her writing than directing. Still, she’s a more than competent director. It’s just that her writing is what sets her apart. Dunham is unafraid to make her characters, even ones supposed to be likable, hard to like. It seems counter-intuitive, but everyone in her cinematic worlds fascinates you. Sharp Stick allows her to explore the coming of age story and self-discovery journey in a way we’ve never quite seen before.
Sharp Stick is one of the higher profile movies at the Sundance Film Festival this year, without question. Some may not be taken with it, but especially in the second half, this one came alive for me. Dunham is such an interesting storyteller, I’m always curious to see who and what she creates. She brings things into the world that no one else really does. For some, it’s insufferable. For me, it’s consistently intriguing, and this flick is no exception.