Spoilers for Sharp Stick Ahead
Even though it’s been twelve years since Lena Dunham has released a film of her own making, she’s never been a stranger in the public eye. Ever since fully arriving on the scene in 2010 with her semi-autobiographical film, Tiny Furniture, Dunham has enjoyed varying degrees of success, but perhaps more prominently, she’s been embroiled in even more controversy: controversy that always finds a way to paint her projects. Deeming herself (through her character, Hannah) in HBO’s Girls, as a “voice of a generation,” Dunham has never shied away from speaking her mind first and apologizing later. This is no different in the response to her most recent film, Sharp Stick.
In 2022’s Sharp Stick, Dunham tells a story of a young woman who experiences a radical sexual awakening at the age of 26. Our protagonist, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), lives in LA with her mother and adopted sister (Marilyn, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Treina, Taylour Paige). Marilyn manages the apartment complex in which they live, and the two daughters help to manage the tenants while Treina attempts to become famous on social media and Sarah Jo works as a caretaker to children who are differently abled. Through her work placement, Sarah Jo works with a young boy named Zach (Liam Michel Saux) whose parents are stay-at-home-dad Josh (Jon Bernthal) and pregnant-mom Heather (Lena Dunham herself). After being party to several sexual conversations at home between Marilyn and Treina, Sarah Jo is convinced that it is time for her to lose her virginity, and she sets her sights on Josh to be the man for the job. An affair ensues but quickly falls apart, leading to an even more elaborate sexual journey for Sarah Jo.
This type of story isn’t necessarily new, save for the fact that Dunham has claimed that it is, in part, a story about her own struggles with her own hysterectomy. Dunham suffered from endometriosis for years and elected to have a hysterectomy at the age of 31. The character of Sarah Jo, on the other hand, suffered a medical emergency at the age of 15, received an emergency hysterectomy, and went through premature menopause all while most of her peers were just beginning to become sexually active. Between the physical changes in Sarah Jo’s body and the humility and shame that came with her surgical scars, she never felt comfortable enough to physically engage in the formative years of puberty.
On paper, and even in Dunham’s understanding of the character, Sarah Jo’s story seems empowering and engaging. But what Dunham believes she was attempting fails to translate. Unlike other films which document female sexual exploration at a young age, like The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Thirteen, Sharp Stick never addresses its failure in presenting Sarah Jo as a 26-year-old woman. Eight years might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things when it comes to a full life, but Sarah Jo’s eight-years distance from when she’s eighteen should feel significant when they absolutely do not. Sarah Jo is coded as an adolescent, despite her career as a caretaker and verbal confirmation of her age. Not to say that fashion and home decor can’t possess a throwback quality (especially for someone in their mid-20s), but Sarah Jo wears an assortment of clothes that could be easily seen on a toddler (or, strangely enough, a quirky Mormon), decorates her room with findings off of the $5 grab-bag rack at Claire’s, and eats ice-cream as if she needs a bib. Froseth’s, and Dunham’s, choices for Sarah Jo are strange at best, and uncomfortable at worst. While watching the film, it’s difficult to find yourself cheering for Sarah Jo because the film sets the audience up to be nervous for her. She’s a woman who needs more than a mother who’s gone through five husbands, and a sister who isn’t sure who’s the father of her baby (that is to say, women who claim to know a lot about sex, but might not be the best at offering objective advice), to get her acquainted with a world from which she has seemingly shut herself off.
In fact, the world that Dunham has built for Sarah Jo seems strangely adrift from the rest of the world. The mother and the two daughters orbit each other in a constant state of repetition, each of them, outside of Sarah Jo, only existing in the womb of the home, repeating stories to each other and never seeming to further their stations in life. Sharp Stick exists in a state of stasis, until Sarah Jo breaks free from the norms she’s perpetuated for 26 years. But by the time she’s begun to break free, her coding makes it nearly impossible to watch the film without squirming.
In reading about the film post-viewing, the disconnect between screenplay and film becomes clear: Froseth’s first interpretation of the character was of an autistic woman. As she became more acquainted with Sarah Jo, she even reached out to Amy Gravino, an autism sexuality advocate, to help consult and better navigate the transition from page to screen. A deeper explanation of the events leading up to filming can be found in this Variety exclusive, but ultimately, even after the film had been released, a spokesperson for the film had to come forward to say that, “Sarah Jo was never written nor imagined as a neurodivergent woman.” Regardless of intent, it can’t be forgotten that Froseth interpreted the character as one way and then was told to take that aspect out of the character before filming. It's entirely arguable whether or not Froseth completely shook her initial interpretation in the formative study of who Sarah Jo is. The warring of these dual Sarah Jos within Froseth’s acting inhibits the film from being either of its two final products: an exploration of a young autistic woman’s sexual awakening or a semi-autobiographical tale of a woman whose life has been shaped by the trauma of a radical hysterectomy.
The disconnect between the two Sarah Jos is also mirrored in the two disconnected halves of the film. Sarah Jo’s affair with Josh implodes at the end of the second act which spurs Sarah to better educate herself in the world of sex as a whole (which she does by way of a sexual experience “dating” site and a self-made A-Z checklist she makes using construction paper and markers to hang on her bedroom wall). By this point in the film, whether or not you’re on board with Sarah Jo continuing on this sexual odyssey, the juxtaposition of school-girl aesthetic and hard-core porn is so overly saturated that Sharp Stick has driven right past any sort of worthwhile commentary. There doesn’t seem to be any critique here, only a story that’s continuing on its manic path, nor is there any consolation for spending time with these characters: no real concern for whether or not any of them get, well…anywhere. (In this third act of the film, you do start to hope that Sarah Jo might spend some real time with Arvin, a male suitor who has accepted one of Sarah Jo’s online sexual advances, but only because Luka Sabbat-as-Arvin is the first real human being to show up in the film.)
During a segment where Marilyn is imparting wisdom to Sarah Jo, she tells her that men like drama, they like a story. In the following sequence, Sarah Jo tells Josh the story about how she came to acquire her stomach scars, seducing him by explaining how she and her body became strangers after her hysterectomy. The quick succession of these two scenes makes you wonder if Sarah Jo is even telling the truth. Is she attempting to put Marilyn’s words of “wisdom” to the test? Or is she putting on a show like her sister Treina does for her social media followers? The world we are given in Sharp Stick is supposed to be solid, but it teeters on stacks of unearned confidence: confidence in the characters, confidence in the writing, and confidence in the story. Dunham has mined from her own life for most of her work, but at some point, the telling of personal stories begins to warp, folding in on themselves. There’s no doubt an important story to be told was here, it just didn’t quite make it all the way through.
Despite Sharp Stick’s lackluster material, as a long-time fan of Girls, it’s always a treat to see the cast of actors Dunham has at her disposal. The film does shine for those who are fans of simply watching Berenthal, Leigh, and Dunham's work and there’s an extra bonus for those who are fans of both Girls and FX/Hulu's The Bear, as Ebon Moss-Bachrach shows up to work with Dunham and Berenthal both. It is strange, however, that Janicza Bravo shows up in a film where the opening shot is of Taylour Paige dancing suggestively in a TikTok video, immediately setting the film up for comparisons to 2021’s masterpiece, @zola (both are films where women who embrace sexual power are put in positions of peril). Regardless, Dunham’s choice to cast these specific actors for this project does instill faith in most of her artistic choices.
Sharp Stick is the rare film in which there perhaps weren’t enough cooks in the kitchen. Women’s bodies are magical, and what it means to be a woman and identify as a woman is a deeply personal and important journey that all women should be given the grace to experience on their own terms. Dunham’s own journey with her body has been a difficult one, one of which she has written about multiple times. She certainly doesn’t need anyone’s permission, or approval, to write about it in any way she wants. But Sharp Stick isn’t Dunham’s story, it’s Sarah Jo’s, and Sarah Jo barely exists. With a story like Sharp Stick, a story about a woman coming to terms with her body, a story that by its nature should have been easily accessible and identifiable, a connection to the lead character is really all you need. But in Dunham’s inability to craft that connection, Sharp Stick is merely a stab in the dark.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.