This review of Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
It’s been 12 years since Lena Dunham’s last feature, Tiny Furniture. After spending the majority of the 2010s with Girls, she’s back with two movies in 2022. Catherine, Called Birdy, still in post-production, follows a 14-year-old girl avoiding suitors in medieval England. We don’t know much else about that one. The other, Sharp Stick, which just had its premiere at Sundance, tells the story of a woman’s sexual awakening. Or maybe it’s more accurate to call her a girl?
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is 26, but she acts like a sheltered, wide-eyed teen. She lives with her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a bohemian no-frills property manager, and her adopted sister (Taylour Paige), a very online, high-drama influencer of sorts. She takes care of Zach (Liam Michel Saux), a boy with Down Syndrome, during the day, and hangs out at home by night. Heather (Lena Dunham), Zack’s mom, is deep into pregnancy, inching with extreme anxiety toward her second child with Josh (a pitch-perfect Jon Bernthal).
If you bottled SoCal into a dude, you’d get Josh. An endless source of golden retriever-like energy with a strained beach bum voice, an off-putting zeal for life, and a dangerously naive perspective for a grown man. The last of those makes him a wont and willing first for Sarah Jo, who radiantly presses him to take her virginity. He eventually caves in on the laundry room floor while Heather is away and Zack is asleep. Thus begins a complicated affair and a new chapter of love and loss for Sarah Jo.
We learn early on in Sharp Stick that Sarah Jo had to have an emergency hysterectomy at 17, which led to early-onset menopause and stunted sexual development. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a 26-year-old who’s foreign to sex. If anything, it’s an intriguing aspect of Sarah Jo that leaves ample space to explore what it means for a woman to experience pleasure, as Dunham does here quite magically at times.
But there’s something off about Sarah Jo’s character, and it hangs around for all 86 minutes. It’s not a performance thing. Froseth, Leigh, Paige, and Dunham all give terrific performances. And Froseth, the relative newcomer, delivers a dewy, impassioned energy to what turns out to be a rollercoaster of a role. It’s about how Dunham wrote the character.
A little research reveals that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic. The production even reached out to Amy Gravino, an advocate for presenting sexuality and autism on-screen in healthy, representational ways, to be a consultant. But, as Gravino detailed on social media, she was canceled on at the last minute and told the character would no longer be neurodivergent. However, it’s clear the script wasn’t fully rewritten with that in mind, which comes across as insensitive.
Sharp Stick is strange, which is usually a compliment coming from me. But the strangest things about it aren’t memorable creative choices or innovative techniques (the movie’s shrooms sequence, however, I will certainly be rewatching for technique). They’re question marks.
Why is Sarah Jo so oblivious to everything if she’s 26, unsheltered, and living in the age of the internet? How is a 26-year-old who lives in LA wholly unfamiliar but totally comfortable with any drugs? Why does the central family of three seem like they’ve never met? How do they have no bearing on each other’s lives? What did Heather think was going on when she was gone? Did Jon Bernthal consent to that haircut? Or is he the only Cali-bro who idolizes Crispin Glover’s Thin Man?
One could argue that those questions become less important as they go, but you get the point. It all feels half-considered, aloof in a way that is more confusing than alluring. That said, Dunham’s experienced filmmaking stands out at Sundance, and she proves through Sharp Stick that she’s evolving as an artist. So, here’s to Catherine, Called Birdy.
Related Topics: Sundance