Writer/Director Lena Dunham (creator of HBO’s Girls) returns to the big screen with Sharp Stick, a coming-of-age story that explores sexuality with such carefree delight and oddball insouciance, you almost want to throw confetti at the screen in celebration. It’s not often we get to see a filmmaker explore carnality with such relish and unabashed honesty, especially during these tenuous and dark days. Female sexual awakening is delicate subject matter, but Dunham dives into the deep end with a freewheeling shrug, as if she were grabbing a beer from the cooler. Unfortunately, the movie eventually falls prey to the very societal lecturing and finger-wagging it criticizes and explodes into a fiery mess of, “Huh?”
Even so, you have to give Dunham credit – her latest might be unfocused and even sloppy, but it’s never boring. That’s not a shocker. The outspoken and controversial creator of Girls has been accused of many things, but dullness is not one of them.
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a wide-eyed, 26-year-old virgin who dresses like a Seventies grade-school teacher and has a naivete and reserve usually seen in preteens– or the Amish. Living in Los Angeles with her eccentric mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige), Sarah Jo is the outlier in a family that talks about sex with such indifference, you’d think they were planning dinner. Marilyn particularly enjoys telling her daughters about her former husbands, including their estranged fathers, who all seem like nymphomaniacs from hell. While Treina, the sexually experienced of the two sisters, engages in these discussions and creates a tight bond with their mother, poor Sarah Jo sits on the sideline, utterly confused and quietly desolate. Sick of being the weirdo in the family, she intends to lose her virginity and end this existential nightmare.
She immediately sets her sights on her employer, Josh (a fantastic Jon Bernthal), the father of the disabled boy she nannies. Since Josh is a stay-at-home father while his pregnant wife (Lena Dunham) works all day, he’s an easy target for Sarah Jo’s seduction. Whenever Josh prances around the house with his explosive machismo and childish bombast, Sarah Jo blushes unrelentingly, revealing some serious daddy issues. There’s something tragic about Josh’s infantile and deluded demeanor and you just know he’ll break under pressure. Soon enough, they have an illicit affair, which is portrayed in an unexpectedly erotic glow that makes you wonder if Adrian Lyne walked in the door. Although their sex scenes are slightly cringe-worthy (especially since Froseth looks much younger than 26), Dunham frames them with a bawdy splendor, as if to say, yes, sex might be messy and confusing, but it’s also pleasurable and experiential.
Once Josh is out of the picture, Sarah Jo discovers the delectable treats of online pornography and becomes obsessed with this new and lascivious world. She takes notes and even creates a checklist of positions which she intends to experience (“A for Anal,” “B for Buttcake”) which she glues to her wall like a world atlas. She also becomes captivated with a ridiculous male porn star, Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman), who spouts off philosophical platitudes like a soothsayer. These moments are so absurd, you can’t help but feel sorry for Sarah Jo even as you root for her. But what are we really rooting for? That’s the question the movie wants us to ask.
Then, just as you start to meld into this John Waters’ inspired dystopia, the narrative slams into a wall and falls apart. The main problem with the story is it simply doesn’t know itself: Is it a farce or a heartfelt drama? If it’s trying to be both, Dunham struggles with the narrative tone, which vacillates between high camp and contemplative tear-jerker. You almost want to scream, “Pick one!”
The fact is, the lead character simply lacks the depth and complexity to fill an entire movie. Although Froseth gives an impassioned and courageous performance, there’s only so much you can do with a caricature. At one point, she looks more like an alien fumbling on Earth than an actual person encountering societal issues. Soon, you realize that Sarah Jo isn’t a full-blooded person but simply a tool Dunham uses to uncork her personal philosophies, which are still unclear. By sentimentalizing her lead’s journey and basically normalizing her, she let all the air out of the beautiful red balloon that danced in the air for the first half. If Dunham simply let her characters tell the story instead of wrestling it away from them, it would be a much more powerful experience.
Warts and all, it’s a journey worth taking. The willingness to take chances and throw darts at a board to see what sticks should be commended. Taking cues from Todd Solondz (Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse), a filmmaker who’s equally fascinated by the dark corners of humanity, Dunham’s created a world that is seemingly bland on the outside while slowly rotting from the inside. The difference is, while Solondz isn’t interested in making important statements as much as discovering gems on his path, Dunham feels compelled to tell us what she thinks. Didn’t anyone tell her that exposition will kill your movie faster than a guest appearance by Armie Hammer? Still, the jaw-dropping moments and ridiculous scenarios make it tough to take your eyes off the screen. In this sense, Dunham has accomplished her goal. You can almost hear the mic drop when the movie ends, even if you’re still not sure what the message was.
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