Dunham’s latest is a daring film, that may not be for everyone
Lena Dunham returns to feature film after 11 years with her latest that just screened at Sundance this weekend, Sharp Stick. The film is definitely a pandemic film and not only takes place during the height of COVID, but feels like the story was culled in part from Tiktok, which was a lifeline to some of us, including myself. I loved Tiny Furniture and that put me on the ground floor for Girls when it hit HBO, which I also enjoyed. While Dunham is a very divisive figure, I think most of her output comes from a very fractured, but genuine place and I connect with that. Lena’s characters tend to be terrible people and she as a writer really revels and excels in showing us their humanity, sometimes bringing her audience to that very real place in the middle.
Sharp Stick follows Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a naive LA native, who is very much on the spectrum; who works as a caregiver for children with special needs. In high school Sarah underwent an emergency hysterectomy that left her body scarred — that trauma, and the fact that she is unable to have children most definitely impacts her and informs her profession. When we meet Sarah she is working for a wealthy family caring for a young boy with downs syndrome. Dunham here plays the matriarchal pregnant breadwinner of the family as her husband Josh (Jon Bernthal) is your stereotypical man child. He spends his time hanging out, and sometimes interacting with his son’s caretaker. He’s a good dad and because of that, Sarah develops feelings for Josh and pursues him into an affair, which comes to the trainwreck of a conclusion you’d expect. Due to her body dysmorphia, Sarah blames the break up on herself and her lack of sexual experience at the time, since he was the first man she was with.
The second half of the film is this transgressive sexual awakening by way of a bizarre take on The To Do List. Sarah becomes obsessed with porn and builds an A-Z list of sex acts she hopes to complete to earn Josh back. The anxiety of the affair being discovered and the brightness of the first half is replaced by darkness and fear, as Sarah Jo begins getting garishly made up and meeting random dudes for sex in a dingy hotel room, while we hope she doesn’t get raped or murdered. Sure, there’s an element of empowerment since this is Sarah’s journey and she is the one curating what these men do to her, but it’s still a precarious situation that the developmentally disabled woman fails to fully recognize. There’s even a point where she gets an STD, and that incredulously is used as a punchline. That second half is a rough watch as it flirts with some very bleak subject matter, making us wonder just what is waiting for us as an audience next.
Sharp Stick is a daring film that simply put, and may not be for everyone. It’s definitely a more mature effort for Dunham as she digs into the darker corners of the human psyche, but does so with a character that is afforded a purity of character that will allow the viewer to absolve her of almost any sin. That said, even this get out of jail free card is well worn by the end of that third act, but Duham abruptly course corrects, not by Sarah’s hand mind you, but in a way that stops the girl from falling into the abyss and being swallowed whole. Sharp Stick is essentially Dunham’s LA film and that says volumes: it’s dark, it’s angry and it explains why she essentially got the hell out. Kristine Froseth is a revelation here as Sarah in a performance that hopefully doesn’t get lost on those that may struggle with her journey. There’s a purity she never manages to let go of, and I think that relentless optimism is what carried me through.