THE STORY – A naive 26-year-old living on the fringes of Hollywood begins an affair with her older employer and is thrust into an education on lust, loss and power.
THE CAST – Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige & Jennifer Jason Leigh
THE TEAM – Lena Dunham (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 86 Minutes
By Zoe Rose Bryant
Love her or hate her, it’s impossible to deny that Lena Dunham has had an indelible impact on pop culture and modern comedy. Following its premiere in the spring of 2012, her hit HBO series “Girls” – which received several Emmy Award nominations, two Golden Globe awards, and Dunham became the first woman to win the DGA Award for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series – followed in the footsteps of 2011’s “Bridesmaids” in advancing the presence of women in the “raunchy comedy” arena. It broke barriers with its daring depictions of female sexuality in all its forms, sometimes even drawing controversy for how far the show would go regarding the topics it touched on. Naturally, over time, as someone who liked to “push buttons,” Dunham couldn’t always escape criticism (relating to “Girls'” all-white main cast, controversial comments about sexual assault, and so on), and the star retreated from the spotlight for quite some time. However, with this year’s Sundance selected “Sharp Stick,” Dunham returns to the world of writing and directing in a major way with a coming-of-age comedy that tells the story of a young woman exploring and embracing her sexuality just a little later in life. Sadly, her schtick seems to have lost some of its luster in her absence, resulting in less pointed and perceptive work than we’ve come to expect from Dunham.
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a naïve 26-year-old living in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige, of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Zola” fame) and manic mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and compared to those two influential personalities, she’s significantly more restrained, constantly feeling like the outlier in her frantic family. Not only does her modest attire – simple cardigans and skirts – contrast with Treina’s more colorful costuming, but Sarah Jo also perceives the world differently, passing through with patience instead of “pizzazz” – some of which may be attributed to the fact that she was forced to undergo a radical hysterectomy at age 15, triggering menopause at age 17. During the day, she works as a caregiver to a child with down syndrome named Zach (Liam Michel Saux), courting critiques from his caustic mother, Heather (Dunham) but catching the eye of his handsome father, Josh (Jon Bernthal). The sparks between Sarah Jo and Josh are almost instantaneous, but despite her intense desires, her lack of sexual experience makes her supremely self-conscious in their initial interactions. Nevertheless, Josh takes her on a wild ride of sexual revitalization. Though their relationship eventually ends, it sets Sarah Jo off on a further journey of sexual discovery, allowing her to accept the anguish of her past and progress beyond her physical and emotional pain.
In conception alone, there’s a lot to love about “Sharp Stick.” For starters, any film surveying sexuality with sensitivity and showing sympathy to those whom society would deem “behind the curve” is to be welcomed, given that everyone’s sexual journey is not the same, and it’s never “too late” to embrace sexual exploration. Inspired by Dunham’s own hysterectomy in 2018, it’s clear that the writer-director has extensive empathy for Sarah Jo and her situation, and she gives voice to a lot of sexual insecurities that those in their 20s are often afraid to say out loud, just as she did with “Girls.” Froseth is also a lovely lead, proving to have quite the endearing screen presence and suffusing Sarah Jo with an infectious soulfulness. Sadly, she can’t always escape some of Dunham’s script’s shortcomings, particularly concerning its depiction of Sarah Jo’s naïveté. In many ways, it seems that Sarah Jo is written as autistic – a portrayal Froseth appears to lean into. Autism activist, Amy Gravino, spoke out, saying that she was asked to consult on the project before having her meeting with Dunham canceled when they supposedly “took the character in a different direction.” However, the neurodivergent coding of Sarah Jo remains – it’s almost impossible to avoid. At times, it almost veers into infantilization, either due to how Froseth is directed or how Sarah Jo is scripted. Dunham and the film’s producers deny that Sarah Jo is autistic. Still, the clumsy handling of her characterization sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s hard not to imagine what the film would’ve been like with Gravino’s input or an autistic actor in the role.
Regardless, even aside from that setback in Dunham’s screenplay, “Sharp Stick” is unfortunately poorly paced and quite oddly structured when assessing the entirety of Sarah Jo’s character arc. Her affair with Jon Bernthal’s Josh lasts about half of the film, leading audiences to believe that this is the “meat” of the film, especially in how much it impacts our innocent protagonist on her path to self-discovery. When this courtship abruptly comes to an end, the film takes a new turn as Sarah Jo beings her own sexual education without the tutelage of Josh. This is admittedly compelling material, with Dunham delicately depicting a young woman’s sexual awakening with an affecting authenticity. However, because it can only transpire over the remaining half of the film, it feels slightly truncated, resulting in a rushed resolution that struggles to pull all of the film’s disparate themes and tangents together. Despite a standout supporting performance from Scott Speedman as a porn star in the second half and Dunham’s good intentions with her insightful investigation of Sarah Jo’s expanding sexual knowledge, one can’t help but feel the disjointed nature of this bifurcated narrative.
A lack of focus is a problem that plagues the film as a whole, with certain characters featured heavily in the first half that are almost entirely disregarded by the end and several subplots that go nowhere. Given how pleasing the performances of Bernthal, Paige, and Leigh prove to be, we want to see more of these characters and how they factor into Sarah Jo’s life post-personal rejuvenation, but they’re left to be little more than comic relief. Overall, “Sharp Stick” isn’t the egregiously offensive misfire some Dunham objectors might hope it to be, but it isn’t the rousing return to form her fans are looking for either. We’re left with a film that has its heart in the right place, but poor plot development and muddled messaging get in the way (to say nothing of the confusion regarding Sarah Jo’s seemingly neurodivergent characterization). There’s good to be found here, and Dunham should be applauded for seeking to uplift those who see themselves as “sexual outliers” due to trauma or inexperience, but “Sharp Stick” needed a sharper script to satisfy fully.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Kristine Froseth is a fine lead who commits wholeheartedly despite the script’s shortcomings (especially related to her character). Jon Bernthal, Taylour Paige, and Jennifer Jason Leigh all turn in strong supporting performances that the movie could’ve used more of.
THE BAD – It wants to be seen as more “complex” than a conventional cringe sex comedy, but it lacks the sharp screenwriting necessary to pull all its disparate themes and tangents together. The inconsistent characterization and occasional infantilization of Sarah Jo (Froseth) – mainly related to her apparent autism – also sticks out like a sore thumb.
THE FINAL SCORE – 4/10