Lena Dunham has always been one to inspire strong reactions with her work, and just because she’s not at the center of her film Sharp Stick (now streaming on Hulu) doesn’t mean it inspires any less reaction. With her first feature film in over a decade, Dunham explores sexuality with rawness and realness with the kind of humor and perspective only her slightly askance gaze can capture. It’s a miracle the Internet survived the theatrical release of the film, but here we are, ready to determine if it’s worth a stream at home.
SHARP STICK: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: The innocent 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) lives a quiet, meager existence with her wild mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Treina (Taylour Paige). By day, she works educating a special-needs child (Liam Michel Saux) at the vaunted Angeleno home of his powerful working mother Heather (Lena Dunham). The boy’s father, Josh (Jon Bernthal), also lingers around the home a good bit. The genuine love he shows for his child captures a portion of Sarah Jo’s heart that blossoms into something of a crush.
She consummates this passion by pushing on an open door – Josh feels somewhat emasculated by his wife’s success and trapped by his son’s condition. He wants to provide, and once Sarah Jo reveals the scars of an emergency hysterectomy that has left her emotionally and physically stunted, Josh realizes he can be her gateway sexual experience, and it’s off to the races. But little do they know that his instrument is unlocking not just Sarah Jo’s box but also Pandora’s – if that box contained just about every sexual experience in the books, all of which she now feels compelled to claim for her own.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: There are sadly far too few films to which Sharp Stick can compare, which speaks to the very need Lena Dunham must have felt to make it. With perhaps the lone exception of Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, you really have to look abroad to find any other movies where women’s sexuality receives such honest depiction with tragedy or pathology. (A great film worth seeking out in this regard that feels like a potential inspiration for Dunham is the German sex romp – yes, while it sounds unlikely, this exists – Wetlands.)
Performance Worth Watching: The irony of Dunham’s career is that while her subjects are undeniably feminine, her work brings out some of the best performances from male actors. (Case in point: no one emerged stronger from Girls than Adam Driver.) As the vessel for Sarah Jo’s carnal awakening, Jon Bernthal shines perhaps brighter than ever before in Sharp Stick. It’s clear Dunham sees the true leading man package in him: tough but tender, sexual but sincere, macho but measured. The film understands how someone so good-looking can become reducible to pure fantasy, yet Bernthal’s tortured take on the character ensures Josh’s needs always come through in a deeply human way.
Memorable Dialogue: “Men love a problem,” Sarah Jo’s mother tells her, “Interesting men, you know, like complicated men, they love a backstory.” It’s worth thinking about how earnestly to interpret this advice from Marilyn, yet Dunham distills into a line the tortured knots into which women tie themselves to appeal to men.
Sex and Skin: Sarah Jo runs through an entire alphabetical bucket list of sexual practices she wishes to experience in Sharp Stick, so it’s safe to say you’re going to see a LOT of sex. However, there’s not a ton in the way of actual nudity, save maybe a stray glimpse of skin here and there, as Dunham’s focus centers on the emotional experience of sex rather than its embodied physicality.
Our Take: It’s refreshing to see Dunham once again approach one of her pet topics – the turbulent female experience of sexuality in contemporary America – with pure abandon. Sharp Stick feels like she’s getting a decade of discussion off her chest, refracting professional and personal experiences alike into this voluminous vortex. Even if the sensual and the sincere make for odd bedfellows that never quite settle in together harmoniously, Dunham’s daring discordance is still enough to keep us reeled in. Any repulsion or confusion only draws us in all the more to figure out why she waited ten years to tell this story.
Our Call: STREAM IT! While at times uneven, there’s enough curiosity and charm to outweigh the cringe in Sharp Stick. Love her or loathe her, Dunham sees sexuality like few others – and she knows how to communicate her viewpoint narratively. It’s all but impossible not to have a reaction to this movie, so even if you don’t really care for it – it’s unlikely you’ll forget or regret watching it.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.
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