Ever since Hannah Horvath, the unfocused twentysomething protagonist of the HBO series Girls, declared herself the voice of a generation, audiences have struggled to read Lena Dunham. The line was clearly at least half-ironic, a joke, but many took it at face value, indicative of Dunham’s aspirations as both a writer and public figure. Dunham has provoked, fairly and unfairly, intense reactions since Girls, which she created with Jenni Konner, put her on the map in 2012, at 25; her solid artistic instincts – go back and watch the pre-MeToo sixth season episode American Bitch, which shreds the double-edged flattery of the self-important male artist – are often accompanied by baffling foot-in-mouth moments along lines of race, class, gender, and plain old overexposure.
Sharp Stick, Dunham’s first film since her breakout feature Tiny Furniture in 2011, isn’t likely to help that reputation. This awkward, misjudged, occasionally sexy film has seeds of a radical, fresh story and flashes of directorial brilliance but is hobbled throughout by the confounding decision to write her 26-year-old main character as either insensitively neuro-divergent or more sheltered child than adult.
That character is Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), an outsider who lives on the margins of Hollywood with her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sun-dried, tipsy Hollywood burnout turned apartment manager, and her adopted sister Treina (Taylour Paige), who posts gyrating dance videos online. Sarah Jo is a wallflower, a lurker, coded from the start as weird: she listens, wide-eyed, to her mother and sister’s frank bickering about sex and desire, seems perplexed by Treina’s performance of sexiness online, dresses in the long skirts and blouses of a schoolmarm with the barrettes of a student. Froseth plays Sarah Jo as an uncomfortable waif – she walks stiffly, balls her fists. While everyone else eats quietly, she bizarrely smacks her lips with yogurt.
Like Dunham, who has spoken publicly about undergoing a hysterectomy in 2018, Sarah Jo is without her uterus; it was removed in an emergency surgery at 17, plunging her into early menopause and cauterizing her sexual development. At 26, she’s still a virgin and is somehow, despite growing up in her liberated household and with access to the internet, so unschooled in the carnal that it’s laughable (we’re talking blowing air on a penis as a “blowjob”). Sarah Jo’s naivety more than strains credulity; what doesn’t is her attraction to Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of Zach (Liam Michel Saux), a child with Down syndrome for whom Sarah Jo is a caretaker. Where Sarah Jo is repressed, jumpy, child-like, Josh is assured, disarming, older. He’s also married to Dunham’s Heather, heavily pregnant with their second child and nerves frayed.
Determined to lose her virginity to someone she cares about, Sarah Jo propositions Josh with all the guile of an adolescent; that Josh takes the bait is, in retrospect, shocking, made convincing only by Bernthal’s embodied, winning performance. The subsequent affair, by far the film’s most sumptuous, stirring and evocative section (Dunham has a knack for filming sex scenes that are both grounded and transportive; Froseth believably portrays an orgasm several times), unleashes a feral desire in Sarah Jo that obliterates her former trepidation. The 86-minute film’s second half finds Sarah Jo pining after her newly discovered favorite porn star (Scott Speedman) and approaching sexual experience like a science project, using men from apps to check off one act at a time.
All of this could be interesting, immersive material, especially given Dunham’s ability to capture female pleasure in realistic depictions of sex. It’s disappointing then that several intriguing premises – an inexperienced late twentysomething who feels underdeveloped, a sexual coming-of-age without the possibility of children and after menopause, even the more traversed lane of a younger woman entranced into an affair with an older, married man (and her boss, no less) – are torpedoed by Dunham’s decision, refracted by Froseth’s odd performance, to write Sarah Jo as more sexual alien than curious person.
A charitable read is that Dunham was so determined to cast her protagonist as marked, separate, different that she overshot, writing a one-dimensionally unaware character with the carnal knowledge and mannerisms of a child. A less charitable interpretation, as suggested by the autism sexuality advocate Amy Gravino in a Twitter thread (Gravino said she was invited, then disinvited, to consult on the script), is that the character was written as neurodivergent/autistic without thinking through the sensitivity of, say, Sarah Jo’s unfamiliarity with the concept of oral sex. Either way, it’s dissatisfying and confusing; there’s a way to write a 26-year-old character who feels cleaved from her age, both too young and too old at once, without infantilizing her.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of watching Sharp Stick is seeing more promising, expansive storylines side-swipe this blundering one – Treina’s heartbreak, for instance, or the aftermath of the Josh affair on Zach and Heather (Dunham remains a charismatic and natural performer who I genuinely wish I saw on screen more), even a single one of Sarah Jo’s hookups in isolation. I would’ve watched any of these movies, because Sharp Stick does affirm my trust in Dunham’s visual instincts, especially with intimate scenes. Unfortunately, it does little to reassure on her narrative ones.
Sharp Stick is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date to be announced