‘Sharp Stick’ Review (Sundance Review)

It’s hard to discuss Lena Dunham, in any context, because of her role in the zeitgeist. While early critiques came in the form of conservative backlash to her breakthrough show Girls, as well as later alt-right fueled conspiracies, Dunham has not helped her defenders in any way, constantly sticking her foot in her mouth almost once a month. But regardless of her personality in the real world, Dunham has been at the forefront of millennial satire and introspection for almost a decade. In fact, there has never been a show as brilliant about the millennial experience since Girls left the air half a decade ago.

But with millennials now well into their 30s, and Gen-Z serving as the new kids on the block, Dunham has turned her complicated, messy, and sardonic eye on the next generation. And while Sharp Stick has some promising moments and themes, it also makes something abundantly clear: Dunham’s ability to tap into generational angst does not extend past her own.

Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) has lived a stunted life. At the age of 17, she had to undergo a hysterectomy, an act she never fully recovered from. Now 26, Sarah Jo lives with her new-age mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her wannabe influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige).

Finally feeling ready to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo comes onto Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of the little boy she babysits, and the husband of pregnant lawyer Heather (Dunham) – advances to which he succumbs. When things don’t quite go as planned, Sarah Jo sets out on a quest to accumulate as much sexual expertise as possible in order to win back Josh’s affections.

It’s clear that Dunham is trying to grapple with the messy, conflicting ideas of womanhood and motherhood, and despite the complicated nature of these themes, she actually does so quite deftly. There’s a relative charm and poignancy as Sarah Jo tries to figure out what she wants in life, considering all she’s ever wanted is to be a mother, an idea that’s equally tangled up in her own sex life.

Dunham takes great care in showing us Sarah Jo’s attentiveness with kids of every age, all with an underlying sense of pain and loss at what she can’t have. And she finds ways to mine emotional catharsis from Sarah Jo’s stunted growth – physically, mentally, and sexually – in ways both beautiful and humorous.

Dunham loves tackling taboo subjects, because her films live in the discomfort. It is as humorous as it is unsettling to watch Sarah Jo, in all her innocence, try to seduce Josh with techniques learned second-hand from her mother, and oftentimes while wearing flannel nightgowns. Later, there’s a strange scene that features Sarah Jo huffing and puffing with great effort – a scene left confusing until you hear an offscreen Josh mutter, “That’s…not what that means.”

It’s all meant to make the audience question what their preconceived notions tell them about sex, love, power dynamics, and more, given new weight in an era of Internet culture and Covid. Dunham knows how to stage all of these interactions, and their oftentimes-humorous undercurrents, to elicit the greatest emotional response, and that’s why it so often works.

The problem, however, is not with Dunham’s filmmaking ability or knack for telling a visual joke. It’s that, as was often the case in Girls’ later years, she is so determined to tell a taboo story, she doesn’t think about how it ties into the rest of the narrative. So many great threads – a girl denied motherhood becoming eager to explore sex, the role of pornography in the modern age, a younger woman seducing her boss and the complicated power dynamics there – are never given the room to breathe because it’s all jammed together in a 90-minute runtime.

Perhaps the reason that Dunham never settles on a particular plot is she just doesn’t understand the group she’s attempting to dissect. While she has a deep, lived-in understanding of the millennial experience, Sharp Stick understands that at best she lacks an understanding of the generation’s beating heart, and at worse holds utter contempt for them. Gen-Z may still be living at home due to a broken housing market, unpayable student loans, and stagnant wages, yet Dunham seems to only see them as a group stuck in arrested development, falling into the category of grifters, autistic, or both.

And because she spends so much time trying to determine if her feelings towards the next generation consist of confusion or disdain, she’s unable to craft a logical, linear narrative out of Sarah Jo’s journey. One minute the film is following a woman trying to discover her sexuality, the next it’s a satirical look at being a woman in the modern world, and then finally it devolves into a mediocre remake of Aubrey Plaza’s 2013 rom-com The To Do List. It’s scattered and unfocused and undercuts what otherwise might have been a relatively intelligent film.

Counteracting Dunham’s confusion are a group of actors that, for the most part, turn in good work. Froseth is genuinely good as Sarah Jo, even if the performance veers dangerously close towards potential autism caricature. While the character is never explicitly labeled as autistic, there’s been pushback that Dunham’s original script gave the character said label, which…is believable.

Meanwhile, Taylour Paige’s character is HUGELY underwritten (she mostly just twerks and whines), but Paige is a strong enough actress to make it work. Jennifer Jason Leigh is fairly humorous as a mom who wants to smoke weed and make her girls Internet famous. Lena Dunham is excellent as a sympathetic, yet spoiled rich wife and mother – she has an excellent scene opposite Sarah Jo midway through the film, and Dunham plays her with pitch-perfect satiric know-how. And Ebon Moss-Bachman and Scott Speedman have truly hilarious appearances as a sh*thead friend and a porn star, respectively.

But if there’s one performance that almost makes me want to give this film a glowing review, it’s Jon Bernthal as Josh. Bernthal is arguably our greatest working actor, a true star on the rise in both indie films and big-budget features. Here, he plays Josh to near-perfection as a sexy loser dad, effortlessly cool in his dorkiness, and yet utterly, utterly pathetic to his core. It’s arguably his funniest performance to date, filled with little tics and traits that bring this character to life. To be honest, a major reason the film feels like it loses steam after the first act is the disappearance of Bernthal’s character for large chunks of time.

Sharp Stick is a smart enough film that it almost feels admirable. There’s just too much being juggled with an utter lack of grace in order to make it work. I don’t fault Dunham, at least not completely: she took a swing, and it didn’t fully work out. It happens. All one can hope from a film like this is that the audience can appreciate what works, let go of what doesn’t, and hope that the auteur can learn from their mistakes.

C+

Sharp Stick is now playing in select theaters; it will be on VOD August 16th

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