‘Sharp Stick’ Sundance 2022 Review – A Boundary-Pushing Exploration Of Burgeoning Sexuality From Lena Dunham

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in Sharp Stick by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Lena Dunham has not exactly been absent from popular culture since her feature film debut Tiny Furniture introduced her as a unique creative voice in the independent scene. A shift to the small screen brought us Girls, a buzzy landmark show amongst the young HBO demographic. Her much-debated memoir brought her even greater attention, but even Dunham would probably admit a bigger spotlight was not worth the larger discourse. There is something about Dunham’s general disposition and point of view that seems to be a lightning rod for controversy, and with her return to feature-length filmmaking she seems to be courting it just as fiercely as ever. Sharp Stick finds Dunham once again exploring the complexities of female pleasure and sexuality, only this time the journey lacks the seamless cohesion necessary to elevate it to something incredible.  

Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth, Birds of Paradise) is a waifish 26-year-old who feels like an anomaly within her family, if not the world at large. The painfully innocent woman soaks in the tales of “love” and dating told by her sister Treina (Taylour Paige, Zola) and mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight). Treina is an aspiring influencer first seen booty dancing with some camera assistance from Sarah Jo. Paige injects a lot of subtext within a very small amount of screen time as this adopted child in a white family who has a skewed perception of her place within the world. Marilyn is seeking outward approval just as much, but her approach is collecting husbands and dispatching with them just as quickly. 

These two have really lived a life on the outskirts of Hollywood, but Sarah Jo has remained an emotional adolescent thanks in part to an emergency hysterectomy which has dimmed her sexual appetite until very recently. This professional caregiver seems to be living in her own fairytale, floating around like an effervescent version of Snow White bringing positivity into a world too jaded for such earnestness. Yet, there is also the sense she feels trapped within the box people have placed her in. A casual mention of her dependable positivity within her virtual caregiver support group sparks a subtle scratching of her surgical scar. She is not even fully aware that something deep inside of her feels unfulfilled. While she has heard the (debatably inappropriate) stories of sexual exploits over the years from her mom and sister, until now these words have felt like a foreign language she has not been able to crack. 

A still from Sharp Stick by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

One of her few conduits to the “real” world is her work as a special-needs caregiver for Zach (Liam Michel Saux), whose parents are on the verge of having another child. Dunham takes on the minor role of Heather, the overworked real-estate broker mother who takes out her frustrations on her husband Josh, nimbly played by Jon Bernthal (The Punisher). Outside of Sarah Jo, Josh is the most complex character of the film as the good-natured, stay-at-home dad who is just arrested and goofy enough to endear himself to Sarah Jo and just sexy enough to fully unleash her sexual interest. The role is an interesting continuation of the good will Bernthal built up in King Richard, as you feel comfortable with him despite being uncomfortable with Sarah Jo’s decision to lose her virginity to him. 

This first portion of the film is the most tonally assured and focused in execution. There is an undercurrent of tension throughout many of these initial interactions as Sarah Jo wrestles with not wanting to be an outsider any longer. One of the best, strangely empowering scenes in the film comes when Sarah Jo assuredly makes a pass on Josh; Dunham does not go strictly down the path of an older man just waiting to pounce on the inexperienced young woman. Josh does protest these advances more than once, but the allure of Sarah Jo proves to be too much for him to resist. His engrained male beliefs that her virginity is something that must be protected is shunted away by this young girl who has already made up her mind. She wants to have sex, and she wants to have it on her terms. The resulting encounter is at-times comically awkward, but it is thoughtfully consensual at every turn and not imbued with any type of shame. 

A still from Sharp Stick by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

It is in the transition to the tonally surprising second half of the film where the film feels a bit uneven. The fling with Josh educates Sarah Jo very quickly, but the most significant development from this time is the introduction to the world of online porn. Once again, Dunham takes a very sex-positive approach to this material as Sarah Jo finds her “person” whose videos she responds to very positively. Scott Speedman (Underworld) turns in a very fun performance as Vance Leroy, a so-called feminist-leaning porn star who really speaks to Sarah Jo. Concerned that her inexperience might be the reason for her incompatibility with men, she goes on an A-to-Z journey reminiscent of Maggie Carey’s The To-Do List to tick off all the sexual boxes (A for anal, B for bukkake… the list goes on). 

The tone is much more lighthearted during this stretch of the film, but Dunham mostly keeps things on the rails by not indulging in sleazy tactics and staying true to the journey of this character. Sarah Jo is established to be more in a fantasy world from the beginning, so the outrageous antics as we approach the end make sense for Sarah Jo specifically. The soft cinematography of Ashley Connor brings a dreamy quality to her ambitious anthropological experiment. The movie quickly attempts to bring together themes of the self-doubt that plague women, the inequality over the need to express raw sexual desire and the empowerment of taking back your body after trauma. Any one of these is an ambitious undertaking for any filmmaker, so it is not surprising that narrative and tonal cohesion can feel more messy. 

Sharp Stick is Lena Dunham’s attempt to contextualize and work through many of the traumas and double standards that she and women at large face in the modern world. So much has advanced in the last decade, but the undercurrent of shame still persists in many respects in an overt and more subtly harmful way. The film is more than a bit messy and uneven, but it is as daring and confrontational as you would expect and hope from Dunham. The performances are absolutely top-notch and overall themes give you much to ruminate on long after the credits have finished rolling. Even if the pieces are not a perfect fit, it is better to have something daring rather than boring. 

Sharp Stick had its World Premiere in the Premieres section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.

Director: Lena Dunham

Writer: Lena Dunham

Rated: NR

Runtime: 86m

Rating: 3.5 out of 5