Over a decade since making her directorial debut with Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham has returned with her second film, Sharp Stick. But despite the large gaps between films, the world has grown to know what to expect from Dunham. After six seasons of Girls, writing her memoir, and working on several other film and television projects, Dunham has shown what we can expect from her work, and for many, Dunham is either a love-it-or-hate-it creator. With Sharp Stick, Dunham won’t surprise her haters, and will only show her fans sides of Dunham they’ve seen before.
Kristine Froseth stars as Sarah Jo, a sweet, childlike caregiver who is still a virgin at the age of 26. An emergency hysterectomy at the age of 17 caused Sarah Jo to pretty much avoid the sexual part of her development. When she loses her virginity to Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of the kid she is taking care of, Sarah Jo discovers the sexual side of herself that she has long ignored.
What follows is almost a greatest hits of what we’ve seen Dunham can do in the past. Sarah Jo’s tryst with Josh reminds of 2012’s Nobody Walks, which Dunham co-wrote, while Sarah Jo’s exploration of her sexuality feels very much in line with Dunham’s work on Girls. In fact, Sharp Stick almost feels like it’s split into chapters, as if Dunham keeps shifting what she wants this film to be about, and even shifting who Sarah Jo actually is.
Similarly, Dunham doesn’t quite know who Sarah Jo is, or give her any consistency in character. While Sarah Jo is 26, she reads as a much younger character, with her computer covered in stickers and her art project take on a sexual to-do list. When Sarah Jo reveals she’s in her mid-20s, it comes as a shock, because everything that Dunham has shown us up to this point certainly hasn’t led the audience to that conclusion.
Sarah Jo lives with her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her sister Treina (Taylour Paige). Marilyn and Treina’s conversations are sexually frank, as Marilyn discusses the fathers of her daughters, and the two have had to deal with their fair share of stepdads and their mother’s one-night stands. Treina talks openly about her recent boyfriend—named Harder—and Sarah Jo is often the photographer for the sexual videos and photos Treina posts daily.
Even though Sarah Jo is personally inexperienced, Dunham shows us that she has lived in a house inundated with sex, and yet, Sarah Jo is completely unaware of the concept of online pornography until Josh introduces her to it. Throughout her relationship with Josh, we see her fundamentally misunderstanding what a blowjob is, not knowing how long sex should last, and confusion over what “going down” on someone means. It’s as if Dunham wants Sarah Jo to be both surrounded by sex with her family, yet completely ignorant when it comes to first-hand experience. Because of this, the character of Sarah Jo and her level of understanding alters depending on what the scene asks for.
What Sarah Jo’s story becomes is confusing—both for the audience and for Sarah Jo—with a fairly strange ending, and Sarah Jo’s apparent confusion that sex = love, an idea which Sharp Stick never faces. While one might expect this type of overt sexuality in a Dunham project, Sharp Stick’s ideas of sex and love seem incongruous with what we’ve seen in Dunham’s past works, especially Girls. Dunham sort of makes this a “there’s plenty of fish in the sea” story, but considering how intertwined sex and love have been in Dunham’s other stories, Dunham’s message here is, again, muddled.
Even with this constant character modification, Froseth is quite good in a role that asks her to be innocent, but curious to learn more about her own sexuality. And even though Dunham doesn’t give Sarah Jo any real consistency, Froseth’s performance makes us want the best for her. Bernthal also continues his trend of being a fantastic supporting addition to any film, while Scott Speedman gets a ridiculously fun role as Sarah Jo’s favorite pornstar, Vance Leroy. Meanwhile, Leigh and Paige are decent, but once more, their candidness in their scenes only highlights the film’s flaws.
Dunham’s latest has a particularly game cast, and a solid concept, but Dunham makes this feel like a collection of mismatched ideas and inconsistent characters. Sharp Stick shows Dunham returning to some of her favorite topics, but doing so in a way that is a step back from what we’ve seen her do in the past.