Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’ Paints a Sloppy Portrait of One Woman’s Sexual Exploration

Even my celeb crush Jon Bernthal couldn't save the embattled Girls director's latest endeavor.

Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’ Paints a Sloppy Portrait of One Woman’s Sexual Exploration
Photo:The Sundance Institute

If there’s one thing audiences can trust Lena Dunham to do when approaching every artistic venture, it’s to make it about herself. And unlike the rest of the internet, I refuse to hold that habit against her for the sole reason that it’s often profoundly obnoxious. If more of today’s creators suffered from Dunham’s second affliction—an inability to simply say less—they’d likely admit that more than one project in their portfolio entailed a bit of projection, too. That said, Dunham’s latest venture, Sharp Stick, seems to come straight from the pages of her diary, and unfortunately, the tale of one young woman’s thottification could’ve been infinitely more effective had it…well, come from anywhere else.

The film opens with its elfin protagonist, 26-year-old volunteer for disabled children Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), filming her adopted sister, Treina (Taylour Paige), performing a choreographed dance for her disciples on TikTok in their mother, Marilyn’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) living room. The contrast between the dutiful, innocent—bordering on infantilized—Sarah Jo and the brazen, bohemian Treina and Marilyn is apparent within seconds; but it’s made even more painstakingly clear when the trio take their respective places at the breakfast table, and the latter two smoke a joint and mouth the lyrics to “My Neck, My Back,” while Sarah Jo meekly observes over a dollop of plain yogurt. Because nothing says delayed sexual exploration louder than doe-eyed blank stares, pinafores, and abstaining from cannabis, audiences soon discover that Sarah Jo is a virgin. Meanwhile, Treina, the gyrating influencer, is “imprisoned” by dick that will result only in disappointment, and later, an abortion.

Apart from the blatant racial implications, there’s another story within these portrayals of 20-somethings. At either end of the sexuality spectrum awaits a punishment for women: Achieve liberation and suffer heartbreak, and worse, or never experience the joys of sex and endure years of being labeled an oddity.

Early scenes show the daughters candidly discussing sex with their mother. At one point, Leigh’s character asks her daughters what you call a penis that’s wider than it is long. “Chode!” they gleefully exclaim, as if it’s a late-night episode of Sesame Street. And yet, Dunham asks us to suspend disbelief that Sarah Jo—a millennial working-class woman in Los Angeles with unfettered access to the internet and social media, not to mention undoubtable exposure to pop culture—has no knowledge or curiosity about sex, until one day she suddenly decides that her married man-child boss, Josh (Jon Bernthal), should be the one to relieve her of her virtue.

To be clear, no one could blame her. Sarah Jo’s attraction to Josh is likely the most believable subplot of the film. He appears every bit the happy-go-lucky dad, fond of dancing around the kitchen and donning hoodies, who seemingly cares deeply about his son. Even still, it feels abrupt when Sarah Jo propositions him. And how she does it is another head-scratcher entirely. As Josh folds laundry, Sarah Jo quite literally lifts her dress up at him like a toddler abuzz with Shirley Temples and adrenaline at a family wedding reception. He initially protests, until she points to scars from a premature hysterectomy due to endometriosis. (That’s right, Sarah Jo suffers from the same condition Dunham does, coincidentally!) She explains her predicament and, like any domesticated douchebag, he obliges her. Fortunately, he’s charming enough that when he prematurely ejaculates and proceeds to get weepy about how he and his very pregnant wife, Heather (Dunham), haven’t had sex in awhile, Sarah Jo is still enraptured—so much so, that she allows him to finger her on the dirty floor as his son sleeps in a nearby room. It’s Bernthal! Would be a crime not to, really.

Sarah Jo and Josh embark on an occasionally sexy affair, complete with a montage that—at the risk of sounding dramatic—will remain at top of my mind for at least the next decade. I don’t know what school Bernthal attended for mastering sex scenes, but as someone who has scrutinized every last one available on the world wide web, the man should win awards for tremendous demonstrations of tenderness and carnal aptitude. Even Dunham credited him in a recent interview: “I always joke that he should give a class on how to be a man in a sex scene.”

Inevitably, Josh introduces her—once again, a 26-year-old born and bred in a sexually candid home—to porn, and soon, Sarah Jo becomes a woman obsessed, even going so far as to develop a juvenile admiration for a porn star with a heart of gold named Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman).

This is where things become even trickier for Sharp Stick. In the climax of the film, Heather discovers the affair, and much to Sarah Jo’s naïveté, Josh isn’t quite ready to leave his wife. This has bizarre implications for Sarah Jo, who then so methodically dedicates herself to mastering sex that she attempts several categories on PornHub with multiple strangers and, even creating alphabetical charts to track her progress. A for Anal? Check. B for Bukkake? Check. C for Creampie? Check. And so on, and so forth. Mystifyingly, her mother and sister barely seem to notice.

While it’s respectable to refuse to make yet another story about women’s sexual exploration that doesn’t involve trauma, when the vast majority of women and femmes have at least one traumatic experience to their name, that viewers are expected to trust that someone as supposedly sheltered as Sarah Jo—a young woman who invited scores of strange men into her detached room to have sex—maintains complete agency of each encounter, with the exception of a ruined dress, feels like a tall order. Dunham is well aware of the ways society perpetuates sexual trauma: She’s written about her own repeatedly. She also knows a thing or two about denying another’s. Frankly, Sarah Jo’s protection not only seems highly illogical—it also doesn’t feel very fair, when Treina repeatedly bears the brunt of very bad guys™. But because this is a Dunham film after all, Sarah Jo gets the happy ending, featuring a new job, a bed partner and validation from Leroy, himself. If only—even once—she was a character I felt compelled to root for.

Of course, I would be remiss to omit another patented element of any Dunham production: controversy. Earlier this year, just before Sharp Stick premiered at Sundance, autism activist Amy Gravino revealed on Twitter that she’d been approached by the film’s producers to consult on the character of Sarah Jo.

“One year ago, I was asked to consult on ‘Sharp Stick’ because the main character was written to be (yet never identified as) autistic. Right before I was set to meet with the lead actress and Lena Dunham, a decision was made to no longer have the character be autistic,” Gravino wrote. “What also surprised me about the change of course was that I was told Lena Dunham had done research on me and was excited to meet me.”

The film’s producers told Variety there had been a “miscommunication” and that it was Froseth who had independently reached out to Gravino pre-shooting. Shortly after, Dunham clarified that Sarah Jo was not (and never intended to be) neurodivergent. There’s no way to know for certain what the whole truth is, but as a viewer, it would be easy to conclude—given a host of context clues—that the character was likely coded as neurodivergent. In the end, Sarah Jo might’ve been altered last minute, but the script certainly remained the same.

Had she been able to determine what kind of story she wanted to tell, Dunham could’ve helped herself in one of two ways: first, by casting an actual neurodivergent actress, and second, if the story was simply meant to depict a 26-year-old navigating sex, by—at the very least—stating that Sarah Jo is perhaps a product of a homeschooled adolescence and thus unexposed to the kind of stunted sexual education one is left to learn from their peers on the back of the bus. As a result of her misdoing, a very vexed audience are asked to just accept that the otherwise curious and intelligent 20-something is simply so sheltered that she truly believes a blow job is, in fact, puffing air on a penis.

As someone who can appreciate Dunham’s talent for casting underrated artists, and can admit I enjoyed aspects of Girls, I hoped for Sharp Stick to mark the start of a less sloppy, solipsistic chapter in Dunham’s story. Unfortunately, I was left only to echo the thoughts of the graying man seated one row ahead of me in the theater as the credits rolled: a singular, plaintive sigh.

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