Writer/director Lena Dunham burst onto the independent film scene in 2010 with her feature film debut Tiny Furniture, a film that evoked an entire generation’s sense of stasis, an inability to launch into a world that didn’t seem all that excited to have us. Dunham’s career took off after that, with the long-running HBO series Girls perhaps her best-known work. Now, Dunham returns with her first feature film in over a decade, and though she’s talked about Sharp Stick being a film born of her own deep soul searching during the pandemic, it plays more like the messy work of someone trying to make what she thinks we thinks she wants to make. Yeah, it’s complicated.
Dunham starred in Tiny Furniture; here, she casts herself in a supporting but pivotal role as Heather, the mother of Zach (Liam Michel Saux), a tween with Down’s syndrome whom the film’s main character, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), babysits. Sarah Jo is a 26-year-old woman who’s emotional and sexual development has been stunted by, well, it’s not entirely clear what. She had a full hysterectomy as a teen, and as a result entered menopause early, thus royally messing with her internal sense of desire and sensuality, among other things. She lives with her mother, Marilyn (a scene-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh), and sister Treina (Taylour Paige), both of whom are so entirely different from Sarah Jo it’s nearly impossible to believe that this person evolved from living in that environment.
The plot kicks in when Sarah Jo decides that it’s finally time to lose her virginity and the only man in her orbit who is a reasonable candidate is Zach’s dad and Heather’s husband, Josh (a mop-headed Jon Bernthal). Their initial seduction scene is so cringeworthy it’s practically unwatchable, as Dunham has made no effort whatsoever to instill in her audiences any sense of sympathy (or empathy) for Sarah Jo. Soon, SJ (as she takes to being called) has such a backwards idea about sex and its function in adult relationships that she embarks on a bizarre quest to jam in (no pun intended) every sexual experience she can think of so as to be well versed enough to hold onto a man.
Froseth does her best to create a character we can care about, but Dunham’s messy script keeps throwing us off the path just as we get a foothold. There’s an odd subplot to do with a porn star SJ becomes enamored with (Scott Speedman), and he ends up being the only voice of reason in this young woman’s very mixed up, turned around outlook on life. The sort of dysfunction Dunham is hoping to approach on screen is, inherently interesting and complex. Unfortunately, the filmmaker assumes so little of her audience that she reduces both characters and circumstances to empty, unremarkable shells of what they could be, making it all but impossible to find anything worth appreciating here.
Sharp Stick opens in theaters August 5.
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