Sundance Review: Almost anything would be better than a poke in the eye with Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’ [Grade: D]
There is a line in writer/director Lena Dunham’s new film that has one character cooing to another, “you are a weird and lovely surprise.” Considering it’s been eleven years since Dunham last directed a feature, there may have been the expectation of that same sentiment aimed at Sharp Stick, premiering at Sundance Film Festival, but, unfortunately, there is nothing surprising about this film, nor is it very lovely.
Even though we haven’t seen anything from Dunham since the final season of her lauded HBO series, Girls, in 2017, it feels as if we are right back where we started with Sharp Stick, another look at a hyper-sexual young woman who is floundering to find her place in the world. The film stars Kristine Froseth as Sarah Jo, a 26-year-old who lives with her mother and sister and works as a caretaker for Zach, a boy with Down Syndrome, played by Liam Michel Saux. When Sarah Jo develops a crush on Zach’s father, Josh, played by Jon Bernthal. She aggressively flirts with him, and Josh, for his part, finds it hard to resist, so the two embark on a passionate and clandestine love affair. Sarah Jo had been a virgin, so this sexual awakening rocks her world, but when Zach’s mother, played by Dunham, discovers the affair and Josh harshly breaks up with Sarah Jo, she assumes it’s because she’s bad in bed. She then embarks on a plan to engage in as many sex acts as possible, with random strangers, in order to check off giant boxes on her wall, literally, and win Josh back.
While there is no denying Dunham’s voice was, for a time, an important one, Sharp Stick falls tremendously short of fully engaging the audience with a deeper understanding of female sexuality and empowerment. Instead, it isolates on a young woman who truly seems more mentally challenged than sexually stunted. There are no answers as to why this pretty 26-year-old, who clearly is interested in sex, hasn’t actually had any yet. Especially considering she lives with her hippie mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has been married five times and often references the men in her life, and her sister, Treina, played by Taylour Paige, who spends every waking moment either fawning over her boyfriend or posting on Instagram. Sarah Jo does have self-image issues, having had a hysterectomy at age fifteen and is self-conscious about her scar, but it doesn’t completely explain her lack of social skills.
While it is clearly Dunham’s motivation to show that women can and must dictate and control their own bodies and sexuality, Sharp Stick ends up working against itself by presenting a woman who appears to be mentally challenged and chooses to define herself solely through sex. It is a very narrow prism and is a true disservice, both to the character and to Froseth, who works hard to give some texture to the character, but she unfortunately cannot overcome the script which betrays her efforts.
In true Dunham style, there is an intense focus on women’s bodies, on sexuality and, of course, stupid, useless men. The trend continues with Bernthal playing Seth to a Dunham type, a man-child who cannot control his urges and then weeps uncontrollably in shame when he’s busted. Bernthal may not have much range as an actor, but when he is cast as perfectly as he is here, he truly does nail it and Seth’s pathetic cliché of a human being is the one highlight of the film. Jennifer Jason Leigh, also not known for a vast range, plays the weird, hippie Mom more like a cult leader than an avart-garde visionary, but it still manages to work.
Despite some enjoyable performances and the occasional Dunham witticisms that harken back to the most brilliant of Girls days, Sharp Stick is, ultimately, a miserable slog that is redundant and pointless, with, sadly, nothing sharp at all to offer.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.