This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage
With Sharp Stick, writer/director Lena Dunham’s first film in 12 years following her 2010 breakthrough Tiny Furniture, she has purveyed a thematic feast which will certainly nourish her most ardent critics and supporters alike—resulting in a polarizing bounty some will find distasteful, and others a welcome palate-pusher. Though the film principally follows the stalled sexual awakening of a 26-year-old woman named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), Dunham never quite fleshes out the protagonist’s interiority, rendering what is ostensibly a personal journey in self-pleasure into a bizarre display of heterosexuality that is both brutal and banal in its depressing disregard for women’s desire.
Clearly coded as being on the spectrum, Sarah Jo desperately wishes to shed her virginity, and finds a seemingly worthy candidate in Josh (Jon Bernthal), the layabout himbo father of a young boy with Down syndrome who she babysits. His heavily pregnant wife (Dunham) notwithstanding, the two consummate their relationship after Sarah Jo explains that her anguished celibacy is due to a radical hysterectomy she underwent at the age of 15. A torrid love affair and its eventual fallout follows, leaving a heartbroken Sarah Jo to believe that her lack of sexual experience is what drove Josh away. Remembering the revelation of internet porn that Josh recently bestowed upon her, she breaks out markers and poster board and embarks on a new sexual undertaking: Sarah Jo sets out to master 26 porn acts from A to Z, proving to herself (but mostly to Josh) that she’s sexually skilled enough to please the next man who comes her way. Despite the enormously crude wall display, her California cool mother (a scene-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh) and influencer sister (an under-utilized but fantastic Taylour Paige) are none the wiser—though it’s hard to believe their staunchly sex-positive household would frown on Sarah Jo’s intrepid sexpedition.
Sarah Jo’s dual embodiment of sensuality and shame is hard to navigate, as it’s likely inextricably tethered to Dunham’s own experiences. (She’s touted Sharp Stick as an intensely “personal” film, which is true of most of her work.) In 2018, the filmmaker had a hysterectomy due to complications from endometriosis—giving her performance as an expectant mother a bitter edge—which she’s undeniably processing through Sarah Jo. Though she’s a beautiful, intelligent and sweet young woman, the fact that she’s had a hysterectomy and sports a sizable scar on her abdomen is her self-professed reason for involuntary celibacy. Yet when she exposes the scar and pouts through the story to Josh, he readily accepts the invitation to deflower her. Even after he ditches her, she has absolutely no issue finding attractive men willing to help cross off acts from her to-do list—none of whom ever comment on the scar—giving little credence to her backstory of universal revulsion and alienation. Even if the scar from her hysterectomy is merely a placeholder for deeper insecurities over her mental development, she encounters no overt ableism from her nightly visitors (or even her unkind ex-lover), so what’s really the deal? Either way, the onslaught of sudden male attention doesn’t seem to radically impact her self-esteem—her true object of desire is an unthreatening daddy porn star she fanatically writes open letters to—rather it serves to indoctrinate Sarah Jo into a sexual landscape that prioritizes male pleasure above all else, emblematic in the list of sex acts she wishes to master to prove her sexual proficiency: blowjobs, moneyshots, gangbangs.
It’s true that many depictions of sex in Dunham’s work verge on female debasement—Aura’s flaccid fantasy of being fucked in a large, cold pipe on the street in Tiny Furniture, any word that escapes Adam’s mouth mid-coitus on Girls—but these hilariously lackluster sex scenes at least acknowledge that young women’s sex lives are often embarassing litmus tests in what we’re comfortable tolerating from others. Yet Sarah Jo is less intent on experimenting with her own personal comfort zone than she is proving she doesn’t have one at all. Weirdly enough, though, one letter on her ABCs of porn display—L for lesbianism—gets crossed out prematurely, with Sarah Jo simply noting: “not necessary!” Are you seriously telling me that a woman who has seemingly evaded male affection for her entire life has never—and will never—consider sleeping with a woman? Especially when this same woman is intent on conquering “B for bukkake” and “R for rimming”? It steeps the porno plotline into a solidly heterosexual framework that feels gnawingly bleak, particularly when considering that the entire basis of Sarah Jo’s newfound sexual voraciousness is due to one man introducing her to porn at the age of 26. It’s one thing to hinge Sarah Jo’s innocence on her virginity, and another to insist she’s this naive when her mother breezily discusses penis dimensions and her sister posts thirst traps for a living. As a sexually frustrated woman in her mid-20s with a laptop and privacy, is the audience simply supposed to believe she’s never mustered up the courage to type out an illicit Google search, only to be inevitably directed to the plethora of freely accessible smut online? The inconsistencies inherent to Sarah Jo’s erotic sensibilities make it hard to see her as a truly realized individual—as if she was just a robot solely programmed to awkwardly eat yogurt in a corner until someone flipped on the long-neglected “horny” switch.
For all of Sharp Stick’s shortcomings, it is an irrefutably audacious comeback for a filmmaker who has been told to “go away” countless times. Though nowhere near as sleazily charming as Tiny Furniture or culturally relevant as Girls, Sharp Stick finds Dunham grappling with myriad themes—straight women’s sexuality, motherhood, pornographic projection, autism, unconventional vs. nuclear family values and, yes, even race—in an erratic yet engaging way. The script is nowhere near as tight and the characters nowhere near as well-rounded as in Dunham’s previous efforts, yet this unpolished quality is what allows the film to exist in a realm of messiness that feels alluringly unfamiliar. In fact, the ideological murkiness of Sharp Stick is one of the most rewarding things about it. Perhaps if Dunham refined her focus or trimmed half-baked thematic threads, the film’s thesis would feel a lot more crystalline—but it’d also be a lot less fun to interact with.
To completely write off Lena Dunham as an artist unworthy of critical survey—even accounting for her many well-documented fuck-ups—is incredibly unproductive. As a writer, director, showrunner and actor, Dunham has irrevocably altered the landscape of how millennial women are portrayed on-screen, highlighting the ugliest (or at least the most cringe-worthy) aspects of our social, sexual and intellectual proclivities. For better or worse, she remains one of the most captivating “voices of her generation,” provoking incessant conversations about her art, body and very existence every time she grants an interview or announces a new project. Whether you love or hate Lena Dunham, one fact rings true: you’re sure as shit talking about her.
Director: Lena Dunham
Writer: Lena Dunham
Stars: Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.