Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick, her first feature since 2010’s Tiny Furniture, finds the writer-director again taking big swings with mixed results. Set in Los Angeles, as Dunham herself moved to the West Coast in 2020, the sex-filled comedy / drama follows Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old virgin who begins an affair with Josh (Jon Bernthal), hunky father of the child she cares for. Once she starts having sex she cannot stop, determined to cross every carnal act and scenario off her construction-paper bucket list.
Like Dunham, Sarah Jo had an early hysterectomy, closing the door on future pregnancies. She’s naive, though her mother and sister are forthcoming about their own exploits. Dunham herself plays Josh’s very pregnant wife, another wrinkle to an already-personal project. Sharp Stick hopes to bring an immense amount of sex positivity to its protagonist and her odd existence. The daughter of a five-time divorcee (a stellar Jennifer Jason Leigh), Sarah Jo also lives with her social-media-famous half-sister (Taylour Paige). There’s a more engaging movie within that home, Leigh and Paige injecting an entirely different energy than the steamy domesticity found with Bernthal and Dunham’s characters.
Dunham wrestles with Sarah Jo’s sexual insecurity and the trite facade of many living in Los Angeles. Aided by cinematographer Ashley Connor, the Girls creator shoots intimacy with an inspired lens, injecting an electricity into scenes between Froseth and Bernthal, and a unique artistry through the use of mixed media and slight animation. Including a mushroom-laden sequence that’s a gorgeous fever dream, everything in this world is bright-yet-hazy: a dreamy collection of moments for a character that has felt very little magic in her life.
But Sarah Jo remains a limited character drawn to be kid-like, eating yogurt constantly and voraciously. She’s perfectly fake, hardly transforming into an actual person with her own traits, ideas, or wants outside ceaseless sex. It seems impossible for her to have never heard of porn, for example, considering the frank openness of a family that leaves no personal stone unturned. The film remains most appealing when Sarah Jo interacts with the important people in her life—her mom and sister, Josh and his wife, even her favorite porn star (an incredible Scott Speedman as the interminable Vance Leroy). She’s more human during these interactions, framing her in a fuller light.
As Sarah Jo undergoes her sexual awakening and prowess in the second half, Dunham loses sight of the character and comedy, opting for broader laughs with less bite. The tone often shifts without forewarning, never fully committing to the dozens of ideas Dunham has about sex, Los Angeles, and womanhood (to name a few). It teeters on absurdism, becoming a fantasy that needs the reality of Sarah Jo’s friends, family, or partners to stay focused. And because of this unevenness, the emotional stakes rarely climb above a whimper.
Dunham pulls out committed performances across the film, each performer finding laughs in sometimes meaningless dialogue; Froseth is strong, though restricted by the one-lane nature of Sarah Jo. This cast put together a special blend of comedic abilities, popping up for small scenes with memorable moments, much more notable than our lead’s time alone on screen. Bernthal continues his incredible run, often the best part about bad movies and never the worst part of good movies. His work in Sharp Stick falls somewhere in the middle.
Like the director herself, this will likely be divisive. It has moments of creative genius strung together loosely, a messy string of thoughtful ideas and inconsistent execution. But Sharp Stick is nothing short of singular. If it’s unlikely the film will gain the director any new fans, it represents another step into bold territory—even as quality dips and swerves, this is a project where it seems no notes were given, the kind of freedom that’s refreshing in today’s landscape.
Sharp Stick premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.