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film review

Kristine Froseth as Sarah Jo.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • Sharp Stick
  • Written and directed by Lena Dunham
  • Starring Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal and Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • Classification R; 86 minutes
  • Available on-demand starting Aug. 16

How does one even review a Lena Dunham movie any more? The multi-hyphenate auteur, who became a household name after her HBO series Girls first premiered in 2012, essentially went into hiding in the latter part of the decade that she spent on screen.

Accused of everything from racism to child molestation to making self-deprecating “fat phobic” jokes about her own body, Dunham provided Hollywood with multi-award-winning success only to then be told that she needed to go away forever. Well, she did. In her own way.

During the pandemic, Dunham moved to England, directed the HBO pilot of Industry, got married, and then wrote, produced and directed two new feature films. (They are her first after her 2010 breakout Tiny Furniture.) Her first act is Sharp Stick, a messy, vulnerable sexual dramedy, which whipped Film Twitter into a frenzy when it premiered at Sundance this past January. Her second film will debut at TIFF in September and is a medieval coming-of-age tale for tweens called Catherine, Called Birdy.

Whether you like it or not, 2022 is Lena Dunham’s comeback year. And if Sharp Stick is any indication, she isn’t exactly taking any notes.

Trapped in a cancel culture quagmire where nothing she creates will ever be right, Dunham has made Sharp Stick as a brazen filmmaking exercise in re-learning how to make art for herself. It is a messy, awkward pandemic-era movie that positively reeks of hand sanitizer (every scene takes place indoors with a maximum of four characters), but is no less lovable than the misshapen loaves of sourdough bread we all tended to in the first blush of COVID-19.

Dunham’s super power is in crafting intimate sex scenes that bristle with a clear-eyed female gaze.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The film’s plot trades in one of the horniest clichés available on Penthouse Forum, as a young babysitter, yearning for sexual experience, decides to seduce her charge’s father. After years of embodying herself, Dunham smartly casts her exact physical opposite (long-limbed baby doll actress Kristine Froseth) as the film’s heroine Sarah Jo, who is one of the more puzzling characters in her oeuvre.

Clad in babyish costumes of knee socks and pinafores while perpetually spooning yogurt into her mouth, 26-year-old Sarah Jo acts more like a neuro-divergent toddler than a woman at a crossroads. While her single mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister (Taylour Paige) speak frankly about their sexual conquests, Sarah Jo’s sexual education is so limited that she dimly replies, “Where?” when asked if her lover can go down on her.

Froseth bravely acquits herself to the role, but none of Sarah Jo’s motivations make much sense, despite her backstory of having her uterus removed at a young age, modelled on Dunham’s own experience having a full hysterectomy at 31. Meanwhile, Sharp Stick sees two more brilliantly written multi-faceted male jerks added to her canon.

The film’s 86-minute trajectory is split up in two parts – two infatuations with two unavailable men. First Sarah Jo seduces Josh (an incredible Jon Bernthal), as the two engage in hot sex on his laundry room floor whenever his pregnant wife Heather (played by Dunham) isn’t home. The floppy-haired, sweatpants-clad Josh gamely provides Sarah Jo with an education but doesn’t realize that he’s fornicating with an open wound. When their misguided affair is inevitably discovered in a standout scene just as Heather’s water breaks, Sarah Jo experiences her first crushing heartbreak.

Whether you like it or not, 2022 is Lena Dunham’s comeback year.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Really, the best thing Josh can offer Sarah Jo is an introduction to porn. She soon discovers a new role model in the James Deen-esque porn star Vance Leroy (Felicity/Crimes of the Future star Scott Speedman, in truly his best role ever). Looking to the feminist tattooed porn star as an example, Sarah Jo begins having sex with every online stranger who will have her, crossing off a laundry list of extreme sex acts on a list taped to her wall that’s written in coloured marker. This part of the film is tonally incongruous, tossed off in a Juno-esque montage that does an extreme disservice to the damming questions of sex, gender and power the filmmaker has always brilliantly wrestled with.

Dunham’s super power is in crafting intimate sex scenes that bristle with a clear-eyed female gaze. She understands how rancid sexual affairs can empower women wedded to their trauma, and just as quickly, completely immobilize them into yogurt-eating buffoons. At its best points, Sharp Stick functions like a cinematic mixtape of every Taylor Swift song, presenting romantic clichés and immediately pulverizing them into dust. At its worst points, Sharp Stick is a twee, porn-ified Napoleon Dynamite, humiliating the very heroine who we should empathize with the most.

One can only hope that this flawed but urgent film will see Dunham come out on the other side, as her detractors use the female filmmaker as a punching bag. It’s nearly impossible to make anything good when the internet is telling you to kill yourself on a daily basis. The fact that Dunham persists is accomplishment enough.

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