With Sharp Stick, director Lena Dunham turns in her best work to date – a bold and meaningful tale of self-discovery that invites us to embrace ourselves.
On the surface, Sharp Stick would seem to be a tale of sexual liberation, revolving around a naive 26-year-old who begins an affair with her older employer, and that marks the beginning of her sexual education. Yet, despite the amount of sex in the film, Lena Dunham’s (Girls) first feature film in 11 years is actually a completely different kind of story, and Sarah Jo’s (Kristine Froseth, of Birds of Paradise) adventures with various men are only a fraction of it. This meaningful, surprisingly sweet coming of age tale is first and foremost about a young woman who has lived her entire existence trying to please others, from her self-destructive mother to her influencer sister, and who finds her own way to heal from past trauma and learn to love herself.
And Sarah Jo’s journey is an unusual one indeed, as it begins with her decision to seduce Josh (Jon Bernthal, of King Richard), the friendly father of a child with an intellectual disability (Zach, played by The MARS Experiment‘s Liam Michel Saux) whom Sarah Jo has been lovingly looking after for a while. Josh is friendly, but he’s also much older than our protagonist, not to mention married to a very pregnant Heather (Dunham), but Sarah Jo’s decision is a consious and pondered one: as she explains to Josh right away, she was subject to a complete hysterectomy (just like Dunham herself), and she still carries physical and emotional scars as a result, having entered menopause when she was very young and having felt not only much older than her actual age but also like an outsider for her whole life.
But though Sarah Jo is certainly more mature than your typical 26-year-old, there are also a lot of things she ignores, starting from how to connect with other people, let alone how to love and accept herself. And so, when her affair with Josh eventually comes to an end, not only does Sarah Jo blame her own inexperience for the man’s rejection, but she looks for a solution in the complete wrong places, from porn movies to random hookups, to obsessive lists of sexual acts she intends to master.
Sarah Jo’s journey is wonderfully absurd, and the most ironic aspect of all is that she eventually ends up seeking advice on sex and relationships from the worst possible “expert” – a porn star named Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman, of Underworld and Grey’s Anatomy), whom she soon becomes a fan of. Not only that, but if the aforementioned Josh is certainly friendly and attentive when the affair begins, he is soon the source of many hysterically funny scenes that reveal just how pathetic he really is, from when he lies about having recently had sex with his obviously pregnant wife to when he compliments Sarah Jo for “learning to love” oral sex, when it’s so obvious right from the start that Josh’s skills in the sack are only so great in his own head. There are plenty of moments of irony in Sharp Stick, and most of them involve Sarah Jo, Josh and Heather, as well as Sarah Jo’s date Arvin (Luka Sabbat, of The Dead Don’t Die) – all four characters played to perfection by Froseth, Bernthal, Dunham and Sabbat), but there’s also much room for wisdom and introspection, as the film uses the most unexpected scene to teach us to embrace who we are and “be proud of [our] f*ing scars”.
Sarah Jo learns a great deal of life lessons during the film, and so do we: as we follow this 26-year-old discover who she is completely on her own, we are reminded that womanhood is experienced in different ways by every one of us. Even if we watch the film’s protagonist be inappropriate, out of place, obsessive and self-destructive, we can’t help but admire her determination to find the answers she seeks, find her relatable even in the most absurd situations, and desperately desire some of that judgement-free attitude in our own lives. Sharp Stick is a personal, intimate story about identity and acceptance disguised as a tale of sexual awakening, told by Lena Dunham with the right blend of irony and heart. Not to be missed.
Sharp Stick premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2022, and will be released in US theaters on August 5.