A naïve 26-year-old sets her sights on a sexual awakening in Lena Dunham’s brash and honest second feature.
Self-proclaimed ‘voice of a generation’ Lena Dunham has had a turbulent few years, and her contentious relationship with the public at large shows no signs of abating with the arrival of her second feature film. A coming-of-age story about a naïve young woman’s complicated sexual awakening, Sharp Stick is likely to prove as divisive as all of Dunham’s past work, but thanks to a sympathetic and sweet performance from leading lady Kristene Froseth and a no-holds-barred script which reflects its creator’s outspoken sensibilities, it’s an interesting film even in its less successful moments.
26-year-old Sarah Jo lives with her sister Treina (Taylour Paige) and mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Los Angeles duplex; her mother is a five-time divorcee and Treina an inspiring Instagram influencer. Their family is close, and for the most part open with each other. Sarah Jo is a little envious of Treina’s uninhibited personality and her mother’s worldliness, as she underwent an essential hysterectomy at 17 and its left her unsure of her place in the world.
Although she enjoys her work as a caregiver for Zack (Liam Michel Saux) who has Down’s Syndrome, she feels her lack of sexual experience is a hinderance, and decides to takes matters into her own hands when an attraction towards Zack’s father Josh (Jon Bernthal) develops. Josh, a goofy but undeniably hot LA slacker, puts up minimal resistance, despite being married to heavily-pregnant Heather (Lena Dunham).
It’s refreshing to meet a protagonist deeply in control of her own sexuality. Sarah Jo, despite her sheltered outlook and possibly being on the autism spectrum (a detail hinted at but never confirmed) knows her own mind, and although she falsely conflates sexuality with womanhood, Sharp Stick never judges her for it. There’s a sympathy and sweetness at play, contrasted against the ‘taboo’ nature of the sexual acts Sarah Jo embarks on.
The film loses its way a little in the second half, as Sarah Jo’s affair with Josh implodes, and she resolves to win him over by becoming a sexual dynamo. In the process she also becomes obsessed with porn star Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) who she sees as a guiding light in her journey towards learning everything she ever wanted to know about sex. There’s a disconnect from the sexy, intriguing first act, as everything becomes a little more scattershot and we lose the novelty of Bernthal’s charming performance as a conniving Californian fuckboy.
True to form, Dunham doesn’t shy away from portraying the act of sex, and does so without any judgement. Exploring her desires is key to Sarah Jo’s journey, and Sharp Stick refreshingly allows its female lead to be perpetually horny without it being presented as a character flaw.
Dunham has written honestly about how her own experience of undergoing a hysterectomy impacted her, and it’s clear that this has influenced Sharp Stick. Popular culture still struggles to address this process, particularly for women at a young age, and Dunham treats the matter with candour. Although Sharp Stick stumbles in the back half, it feels like a maturation for Dunham, confronting difficult topics with an admirable frankness and presenting a sharp performance from the compelling Kristine Froseth, surely one to watch.
Published 26 Jan 2022
Simon Rex is superbly cast in Sean Baker’s sparkling character study of a porn actor well past his pomp.
Millennial attitudes have shifted since the show first aired in 2012, but its core values have endured.